Lifesaving Poems: Dorothy Nimmo’s ‘Rondeau Redouble’

2013-09-22 12.57.04

Rondeau Redouble


There is so little left. The room is bare.
She’ll strip his sheets and blankets by and by —
only this morning he was sleeping there.
The light is pouring from a hard white sky.

She’ll write to him, perhaps he will reply?
He’s better off, she knows, God knows, elsewhere.
She’ll be all right, she told him cheerfully.
There is so little left. The room is bare.

His smell’s still hanging in the chilly air,
his motorcycle boots are propped awry,
helmet abandoned on the basket-chair.
She’ll strip his sheets and blankets by and by.

Make a fresh start. Do something useful. Try
to avoid that stunned and slightly foolish stare
the mirror offers her maternal eye.
Only this morning he was sleeping there.

He’s left a paperback face downwards where
he gave up reading and she lets it lie.
That’s not his footstep coming up the stair.
The light is pouring from a hard white sky.

She stacks up papers, pulls the covers high,
faces the glass now, plucks the odd grey hair,
flicks away cobwebs, dusts off a dead fly,
feels and tries not to feel her own despair.
There is so little left.


Dorothy Nimmo, from The Wigbox: New and Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2000)

The back cover blurb of Dorothy Nimmo’s The Wigbox: New and Selected Poems sums up her personal and professional life in very few words: ‘Dorothy Nimmo was an actress for ten years, a wife-and-mother for 25. In 1980 she started to write; in 1989 she ran away from home. She is currently caretaker of Settle Friends Meeting House.’ The Wigbox was Nimmo’s final collection; she died in 2001.

I am particularly struck by that line about running away. Isn’t that what bored children do, of a Saturday afternoon, only to return half an hour later when they are hungry? Running away as an adult is a far more impetuous affair, foolhardy, even. It takes a rare kind of honesty to admit it. Something of the spirit of this lives on in her poems, which are by turns direct, matter of fact, nerveless and heartbreaking.

If you do not know Dorothy Nimmo’s poems, you have a treat in store for you. U A Fanthorpe was a fan, and A S Byatt. The latter, a friend from her time at Cambridge, had this to say about her poems: ‘They are sharp, black, dancing, profound and lyrical. They mix religious roots like Bunyan and George Fox with nursery-rhyme rhythms turned dangerous. They are tough and uncompromising — her world is bleak, and she records it with precise energy. It is also a world of difficult love, and the refusal of love, both mother-love, friendship and compassion. There is nothing quite like them.’

I encountered Rondeau Redouble for the first time in the winter of 2006, at a gathering of poets and poet-educators at the Totleigh Barton writing centre in Devon. As I recall, Ann Gray gave the poem out at a workshop to near universal silence. A great poem of separation and loss, as well as a textbook handling of a given form, it seems to me, as Peter Sansom once said about Ciaran Carson, ‘savagely controlled’.

It’s the details of the poem that I love. The ‘abandoned’ motorcycle helmet; the unfinished ‘paperback face downwards’; the ‘dead fly’ which needs dusting off. Each of these works on a literal as well as figurative level, reinforcing the ‘chilly air’ of estrangement in the poem, which is itself reinforced by the repetition —and lived reminders— of stripped sheets and blankets. Cumulatively they intensify this atmosphere, earning the poem the right to name ‘despair’ as its real subject in the penultimate line.

Byatt is right, no one wrote like Dorothy Nimmo. If you will forgive the irony, she should be a household name.

Lifesaving Poems

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