J.C. Masters reviews “A Kinder Sea” by Felicity Plunkett
A Kinder Sea
by Felicity Plunkett
Reviewed by J.C. Masters
Growing up on the coast, I felt like the sea and I were easy and old friends. The water framed my first two decades of life; smeared in sun cream and rash vests, my parents would take me to the beach on weekends where I would happily sluice myself in salted air and water. I realised later that I only ever knew the edge of the ocean where its fingers and toes gently touched mine. The one time I was caught in a mild rip, I was panicked-filled with the crystal understanding this was a stronger and fiercer swell than I had known. I knew the water’s strength in much the same way I know the universe is big: as a concept relative to my own smallness. Felicity Plunkett in her new collection, A Kinder Sea, seems to have no such reservations or fear. Her work reads as though she is immersed in the same deep place where the bedrock heart of the sea collects people’s daydreams and elegies. She speaks with penetrating insight and at times, a heartbreaking clarity.
Plunkett is a Sydney poet and critic, and her first collection – Vanishing Point (UQP) – won the 2008 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for several others. UQP’s Q&A with Plunkett, published on the book’s release, asks her what the collection is about and her answer starts to unlock the expansive space the poems contain:
‘There is a widely-quoted and heartfelt letter from Emily Dickinson, in which she wishes her friend ‘a kinder sea’. That she probably never wrote this letter highlights the imaginative space A Kinder Sea occupies: it is a book of unspoken hopes, unmourned losses, of mute and unprayable prays and letters never sent.’
The imaginative space in this collection swells at the same point where sea touches land, with Plunkett having a foot in both camps but neither in both. Paul Celan’s quote that poems make their way to readers like messages in a bottle, used to begin the long poem ‘Glass Letters’ (6-17), is an apt description for the way Plunkett’s poetry caresses and then plunges into the heart of you, crossing the divide between writer and reader. The collection is tenacious and tender. It explores the spaces between solitude and isolation, resilience and dissolution, art and traumatic experience, and vitality and loss, while her technical skill means the barest of ripples articulate the thunder of the moving sea floor.
A Kinder Sea is divided into five chapters – ‘A Corner of the Sea’, ‘Carmine Horizon’, In Search of the Miraculous’, ‘Grace’, and ‘Heartland’ – and accompanied by an introductory poem, ‘Sound Bridge’ (1-2). The chapter titles also describe an ocean journey, an extended metaphor that Plunkett wields to explore relationships, solitariness, connection, and the body. In this respect, the nautical craft of the sailor becomes the worded craft of the poet, each carrying them above the tense sea-glass potential of chaos and loss. The first poem ‘Sound Bridge’ begins with Plunkett’s son and meditates on the struggle of releasing a child into the world:
My son sings the Lacrimosa in Hodonín: joy-
bright teens with a hundred Moravian choristers. Lurch
and tangle, the holding, the letting-
Quiet music: tension, strings and frame
of what we can’t teach, because we are still
learning: what I can’t protect you from, can’t
come close to, must damper, love. Words untrans-
latable, but we feel their heft, close: light
Lacrimosa, part of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass and a movement from Mozart’s ‘Requiem in D Minor’, frames the melancholy background to watching a child grow up. Plunkett’s enjambment, used liberally in this poem, emphasises the dual nature of this process. The ‘letting-/go’ is divided between stanzas, showing the space between the hyphenated ‘letting’ breaking off into nothingness and the forward-moving ‘go’ beginning motion in a new line. Line breaks are used to break up compound words, except for when she splits the whole word ‘untrans-/latable’ in the fifth stanza, suggesting that there are parts of this experience that cannot cross the divide between language and meaning. Additionally, the change in this process is between the actors, not the scene; Plunkett notes it is ‘The same/question, same notes in new throats, same lesson strung/across centuries’ but this question is described in terms of the ‘Lurch/and tangle’ of wanting to hold on while needing to let go. The poem compiles the opposing forces acting on Plunkett – similar to the ‘Quiet music’ and ‘soaring bars’ that her son sings – and we are given a clue to a larger purpose that lies quietly but solidly in the collection: the role of poetry and art in healing the self and filling the gap between self and other. ‘As in the piano’s belly, a bridge’ suggests the between-space where individuals can connect and where one can move from being at sea to back on land. The symbol of the bridge also features in her third-from-last poem ‘Bridge Physics’ (82-3), which opens with a quote explaining that two forces act on a bridge at any one time: compression (a force that seeks to compress or shorten) and tension (a force that seeks to expand or lengthen). These opposing forces frame her collection; ‘Sound Bridge’ and ‘Bridge Physics’ enclose her poetry with a controlled but dynamic push-and-pull, resulting in a book that quivers with kinaesthetic potential. It feels a bit like the collection is balancing on the head of a pin: the poems encompass smallness and bigness, silence and roar, and they tightly compress language while expanding through symbolic and allegorical potential.
The push-and-pull of the tides is mirrored in her longest poem, ‘Glass Letters’, which is separated into 12 stanzas of six couplets each and spread across 12 pages. The regular motion of the elegiac couplets bring to mind tidal movements, while the poem is balanced between smooth sentences and jagged edges. It has a number of allusions between the work of poetry and the in-out work of the water; ‘Words wash/and maul me. How diligently we fish/for a noun to release/our correspondence into grace[,]’ while ‘Brine/and absence pickle/your arrival.’ The imagery in these beginning poems set the scene for Plunkett to explore the likenesses between the behaviour of the sea and the experience of the self. It provides a backdrop to poems that detail what I have heard described as ‘big feelings’: the emotions and moments that threaten to drown us, and how art can act as a lifeline in these moments.
‘Songs in a Red Key’ (29-31) depicts Plunkett’s time in St Vincent’s Hospital, with the recurrent call of ‘red keys please’ breaking through the stanzas intermittently. There is a routine when asking for pain relief in a hospital; only one nurse at a time has the keys to the safe, but two people are required to open it and witness you taking the allowed medication. In any ward in any hospital across the country the semi-regular cry of ‘Who has the keys?’ can be heard echoing across rooms and puncturing the quiet. This poem has a regular but razored rhythm, imitating the sharp flashes of memory that piece together a time of sickness. Plunkett intones ‘Doctor, I have swallowed a glass/alphabet’ and the words sting in their jumpiness:
I need your blade to unstring
me, song’s puppet: shaking,
humming, undressing, putting on
slash-backed robes of distress
as though for some mortuary
curtain call, where jagged
breathing staggers still
from each of us laid cool
in Ward EM-U 4-2
red keys please (29)
As the phrase ‘red keys please’ is repeated, the tone of the poem changes slightly and Plunkett notes ‘my hubris muted/below drug’s sea levels’ and ‘Night’s shadows lose their hold’. The final line – ‘prosody neonate-fragile/dreaming of song and flight, ready/to batter jamb, sash and snapped/cord: open into air’ – describes the separate feelings of the self expanding into a red-keyed morphine haze and a mother’s world expanding when a child is birthed into the open air. The ‘snapped/cord’ is literally snapped between lines, and functions dually here as the self’s medicated release of the pained body and the cord cut between mother and child. Another poem ‘Three’ (68-71) explores comfort and kindness during times of pain and injury. The epigraph is a quote about the importance of being kind, while the poem’s second page ends with the phrase ‘Always alone/when pain climbs to ten.’ Doctors will often ask patients to rate their pain out of ten so they can gauge change over time. Plunkett implores another, describing their head resting against hers, and says she has only ‘small gifts’ to give: ‘a poultice of godless/prayer, mute infusion’, while from their ‘torn mouth’ they offer ‘consolation, calm’. These poems artfully describe what Elaine Scarry has called the “combination of isolation and exposure” that characterises pain. It reminds us that though we may reach across bodies to connect with others, in pain we are unavoidably drawn back into our self’s centre and settled in our own mass. In these times, kindness is a floating buoy given to people in pain to reel them back to shore and remind them that they will emerge in time.
As the journey into Plunkett’s poetic sea continues, her experimentation with form and sound increases. Individual words do the work of hundreds, while poems in rhythmic stanzas meet free verse arrangements. The recycling of lines in ‘Waiting Room’ (78-79) echoes the monotony of time spent waiting, while ‘Cyclone Plotting’ (36) and ‘Bloody Days: Monochrome’ (57-58) are turned 90 degrees to the left and printed in landscape. ‘Cyclone Plotting’ is a prose poem compiled of sentences beginning ‘The danger is that’ and the effect is cumulative:
The danger is that if I’m not lifted out of this hot storm everything will open, slippery and roof-shaking. The danger is that I have invented you, and your hip bumping mine promisingly. The danger is that the rain will wash away by lightning-flash glamour. (36)
Plunkett’s poetic world tilts on an angle and is reflective of the way that when danger comes, it comes all at once, immediately and overwhelmingly. It also ends with the phrase ‘The danger is that.’, though it is not obvious if the phrase ends the poem by re-emphasising that which has already been said, or if it opens out into possibility. The other landscape poem ‘Bloody Days: Monochrome’ is list-based and defamiliarises us to Plunkett’s experiences. These are not memories described in loving detail and delivered from one mind to another; this is an edited recounting stuttering across restricted form and bursting out of the weak spots in its seams. When reading it, I wondered how we would view our own lives if they were listed in pieces and turned on their side. Would my most vivid memories, described sparingly on an angle and totalled sequentially, still ring the same way to me?
Dawn clouds, red as history, press down. I linger under sky-soft counterpane.
Bells that peel the day into segments.
Seams of lost memories. I speak to children about forgetting.
Rising, a flush that says the muse is on her head: the weight of it, the deciding-to. (57)
Many of the sentences bring to mind Plunkett’s school days, from her first years to ‘8./My last school residency, three years ago’ and finally, ‘9./Small voices bring me to my knees.’ Like Plunkett’s first poem, we have come full circle: her earlier reflection that it is ‘same notes in new throats’ (‘Sound Bridge’, 2) finds her bearing witness to her children. There is also a subtle suggestion here: though we learn our tables and grammar at school, Plunkett’s fine-tuning of school tropes suggests a wry rebellion that can come from dismantling the rules of the system. Within the parts of our lives that require neat lists, Plunkett offers the option of literally and metaphorically turning them on their side, dividing the lines so each sentence seems to float in the air, unattached to its isolated number. This is indicative of her collection as a whole: though she has a number of free verse poems, other poems sit in neat couplets or quatrains and are rhythmically regular. It suggests that for Plunkett, form is more effective when wielded rather than abandoned.
Some poems are not as strong as others but in such a tight collection, even an unnecessary word here or there is noticed. I found some parts in ‘Yellow’ (26-28) slightly redundant, with some stanzas losing their punch because of this:
Big. Big as loneliness.
At our wedding he cried
and cried. She darkens, shoves
scrambled egg into a child’s mouth.
The joy of having once
been wanted congeals. She spoons
a final mouthful. (26)
Here, cogent imagery of congealing egg juxtaposed with a cut-piece from a happier time delivers the impact. Parts like ‘Big. Big as loneliness.’ and ‘darkens’ are already inferred by the strong images, reducing the effective delivery of the stanza overall. However, this feels slightly like splitting hairs because the collection as a whole is powerfully compelling. Plunkett has a unique talent for articulating precise emotional moments, while her experimentation with form and language is expertly employed and never slips into gratuitousness. Some poems manage to weave a vista into words (her closing poem ‘Inclined’ (89-90) is one standout example of this) while others expand effortlessly into emotional landscapes.
Each poem in A Kinder Sea functions as Paul Celan’s message in a bottle, crossing divides between then and now, alone and comforted, poet and reader. Plunkett builds bridges out of sentences, paying homage to journeys that ended in nowhere, words left unsaid, and love felt so deeply it defied language. Reading A Kinder Sea felt like having a hand held out to me; in isolation, adrift in our own oceans, Plunkett reminds us that there are ways back to shore.
- Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: OUP, 1987), 53.
J.C. Masters is a postgraduate student in English Literature at the University of Sydney. She tweets @_jclyons