Lifesaving Poems: Helen Dunmore’s ‘In the Desert Knowing Nothing’


In the Desert Knowing Nothing


Here I am in the desert knowing nothing,
here I am knowing nothing
in the desert of knowing nothing,
here I am in this wide
desert long after midnight.

Here I am knowing nothing
hearing the noise of the rain
and the melt of the fat in the pan

here is our man on the phone knowing something
and here’s our man fresh from the briefing
in combat jeans and a clip microphone
testing for sound,
catching the desert rain, knowing something,

here’s the general who’s good with his men,
storming the camera, knowing something
in the pit of his Americanness,
here’s the general taut in his battledress
and knowing something

Here’s the boy washing his kit in a tarpaulin
on a front-line he knows from his GCSE
coursework on Wilfred Owen
and knowing something

here is the plane banking,
the go go go of adrenalin
the child melting
and here’s the grass that grows overnight
feeling for him, and knowing everything

and here I am knowing nothing
in the desert of knowing nothing
dry from not speaking.


Helen Dunmore from One Hundred Years of Poetry for Children (eds. Michael Harrison and Stuart Christopher-Clark), OUP, 1999

I heard this poem before I ever read it, on one of those tapes the Poetry Society education department used to to produce to encourage children and teachers to listen to poetry. This was in the days before the Poetry Archive and Michael Rosen in your classroom at the touch of a button.

As I remember the tape included one of Michael’s riffs about car journeys with his brother, and Jackie Kay’s ‘Sassenachs’, One Of My All-Time Favourite Poems. Then this.

No introduction, no context, the voice on the tape went straight in.

Perhaps that was the point. The context, the point, was everywhere. We had had Iraq#1 and were about to have #2. We knew about ‘Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf. We had witnessed children melting on the news. Nothing needed to be said.

And yet the poem isn’t journalism. It isn’t reportage. It takes you into the interior ‘desert of knowing nothing’, hundreds of miles from suffering, in a room where ‘fat in the pan’ is the closest to heat and to danger the speaker comes. Even with ‘the noise of the rain’ there is dryness, transmuted into a kind of spiritual ache for truth which 24-hour news coverage cannot sate.

The poem is bigger than its occasion, of course. In the years since I first heard it I have come to see it as a prophetic cry railing at the culture of ‘clip microphones’ and ‘combat jeans’, the glorification of war ‘briefings’ which are ‘taut’ with the self-importance of ‘knowing’ more than the viewer at home. Never has male hegemony been more finely skewered.

The rage it communicates can be applied to the march of neoliberal thought in more than military operations, however. Picture a reporter standing outside a hospital, or a school, where some alleged ‘scandal’ has just taken place. Then picture those on the other side of the fence, now part of the discourse of derision taking place on their doorstep, their mouths complicit and ‘dry’, whether they speak up or not.


  1. What a powerful poem — as I read it, my stomach just fell out from under me. While I know it’s about war, it has another resonance for me today, as I wait for a phone call from my mother. We have learned from the hegemony of medical practitioners that my father has cancer in his femur, but we know nothing else. We are waiting in a different kind of desert, waiting for rain and life and hope. The power of the poem is its ability to shift and speak to different situations in which life has spun out of control.


    1. Dear Connie
      Thank you so much for your honesty and vulnerability at a time which sounds extremely demanding and difficult.
      I’m glad the poem spoke to you even though its original source is somewhat different.
      I hope it helps you find some sort of control. Another source of poems about health in its broadest sense is Julia Darling and Cynthia Fuller’s marvellous Bloodaxe anthology The Poetry Cure.
      Yours with good wishes


  2. The power of the poem is its ability to shift and speak to different situations in which life has spun out of control.

    A beautiful and sad post, which validates Helen’s poem completely. The fact is’ of course, that life is always on the verge of ‘spinning out of control’. Indeed this seems to be an inherent factor in life itself. Learning this life lesson does not save us (cf Larkin’s Aubade – ‘Being brave /Lets no-one off the grave’) but for the sake of the here-and now (which is all we really have) it cannot be learned too early, can it?! My sympathy, and hopes for the best possible outcome, to you and your family.


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