To My Nine-Year-Old Self

Helen Dunmore

The tone of the older speaker’s address to her former self is established immediately with the short first sentence ‘You must forgive me.’ The plea for forgiveness suggests the speaker feels guilt for wrongdoing which may have hurt the other. That key relationship is the basis of Dunmore’s poem.

The way the younger self is presented includes some of the typical characteristics of youth: there is the reluctance to engage with older people, ‘eager to be gone’, and impetuousness and energy in the verbs ‘run’, ‘climb’ and ‘leap’. The reason for the guilt is apparent at the opening of stanza 2:

‘I have spoiled this body we once shared.’

In contrast with those energetic verbs of youth, the speaker now has ‘scars’, a ‘bad back’ and a ‘bruised foot’, necessitating care with ‘the way I move’, all the inevitable frailties of ageing. Those contrasts suggest separation, but Dunmore shifts to the first person plural and the bonds between the young girl and the older woman are explored, with phrases like ‘Do you remember how…/ we’d jump’ and ‘The dream we had’. The diversions and digressions of childhood are nostalgically listed, varying from ‘a baby vole’, ‘a bag of sherbet lemons’ to ‘a den by a cesspit.’ The detail of this range makes them compellingly persuasive of childhood in a more innocent age, but equally it’s an age when there were still fears of ‘men in cars after girl-children’.

Despite this bonding through memories and ambitions, the speaker withdraws, acknowledging that age has created a gulf between the two selves: ‘the truth is we have nothing in common’. There is again an apologetic tone in phrases such as ‘I won’t keep you then’ and ‘I shan’t cloud your morning.’ These lines suggest that the older self is a burden and an embarrassment, which of course for a young child with an open future ahead is completely comprehensible. It is far easier to look back and observe the changes; to do the opposite and look forward to those changes could be horrific. The speaker reflects on this, admitting

‘I have fears enough for us both –’.

The poem ends with a short stanza picturing the child again as a final image, and again it is one of typical childhood, ‘slowly peeling a ripe scab from your knee’. While the tasting of that scab in the final line is gruesomely comic, there is perhaps already there the image of hurt, of change, of challenge, to be savoured as it moulds the character.