Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
Felicity Plunkett’s latest collection, A Kinder Sea, renders navigable the ocean of urgent emotions on which a poet floats her many loves and only life. Here, the sea is fluid in its identity – pun intended – as it is at once a sanctuary and a taker of lives, preserving and whittling-away at relics of existence. Sometimes elegiac in nature, these poems are warmly intimate. Yet, in Plunkett’s deft hands, the verse does not succumb to solipsism: she evokes a sense of universal experience as she occasionally samples lines from other writers, including Emily Dickinson, Henry James, Paul Celan, and Ali Smith. The effect is at once fresh and emulatory. The borrowed lines are given new life with Plunkett’s pen – or, to use the words of her poem, “Sound Bridge” (1-2), these are the “same notes in new throats” (2). Plunkett’s poetry offers up prayers, wishes, and promises for the future even as it preserves the past in a way that is less nostalgic or forensic than it is physiological.
Thus, a stand-out poem in this fine collection is “Carpus Diem (wrist mnemonics)” (80-81) in which the physiology of the addressee’s wrist paints his portrait in miniature. The speaker confesses to once feeling “so heavy / with shyness” that she “couldn’t lift” her “eyes – could / barely speak” and instead “watched” the “hands” of her beloved (80). She says, “while I burn / to learn your body, we have time” – using a quietly assertive internal rhyme that is a hallmark of several poems in this collection – “so let me focus, let me / be methodical as a med student late / at night” (80).
This unusual metaphor is extended throughout the poem with great skill. The bones of the wrist are lovingly detailed, and a tender simile illuminates the page: “Our arms were full like hearts in / poems – full of patience, pause – is there something // wrong with me?” Here, the discordant note struck by momentary self-doubt helps the poem tear itself away from any temptation towards sentimentality. Plunkett does, however, flirt with romanticising, alluding to the sonnet in Romeo and Juliet when the young lovers meet with the words: “Let hands / do what lips do” (80). She inverts Romeo’s line: “O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do” (1.5.102). Part of the process of inversion is also subversion – the addressee is no saint and he is all the more beloved for his humanity, realness, corporeality: “don’t forget capitate, hamate – don’t / forget a hair, a pore, a breath of what is here / as it is.” The speaker delights in the particular; she would capture the essence of her beloved in her memory.
The final, triumphal lines are truly spectacular in their paired-back, yet exuberant imagery: “Remember, we are spirits / caught in fretwork – matrix of hope and bone – / strong, flexible, holding, pushing, trying” (80). Reduced to skeleton and one strong emotion – hope – we are fine brush strokes of humanity with no need to be fleshed out into other drives, other distractions. The string of three verbs cleverly evokes the struggle to live. Plunkett is indeed an accomplished poet.
The impulse to preserve the present moment with the beloved is akin to the urge to conjure the absent lover, which is succinctly articulated in the long poem, “Glass Letters” (6-17): “When I try to write you / near, my words break the sea’s caul, tear // solitude, foam into hymn” (6). Plunkett’s riffing on this theme of love in absentia is delightful, the sibilants sizzling on the tongue like drops of champagne in the following lines: “Shaken wordless, I wash syllables / in salt, trace remembered promises to // the place where they rolled in foam” (8). Later, three rhetorical questions show how the writing of poetry for an audience is akin to writing love letters in a long-distance relationship:
Is it enough to bottle words, enough
to write and then let go? To lob them
from my craft, discard
the unspeakable, rocks in its pockets?
Hand them to the sea’s cur-
ation: a future heartland? (9)
The unusual choice of enjambment in the middle of the word allows for the sea to be both cure and curator, to mend a broken heart at the same time as it sifts, selects, keeps, and rejects the flotsam and jetsam of human, plant, and animal detritus. The final lines of this poem are sublime: “You // are the oblique arm of an angelic generosity. I / am the last sun-glint on a storm-recovering sea” (17). So perhaps there is something angelic about the beloved – if obliquely and at arm’s length – but it is the speaker’s description of herself that is most striking in its sheer loveliness and specificity, evoking dusk’s last flecks of light on the sea after a storm.
“Syzygy” (25) is another standout poem, with its joyful sound-play evocative of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Windhover.” It begins as it means to go on, vibrant and breathless, joyous, a delight to read aloud:
Edge, swerve, disturb, you’re all
verb: pressed to you, wilfully
irresistibly, like ivy, sighingly, I climb like
an adverb unattached, insouciant, this high-
wire, thighs and strive, brine and hive… (25)
This is sensory and sensuous poetry. Elsewhere in the collection, “Volta do Mar” (52-53) is equally dazzling, making clever use of the imperative to address the reader: “… Unstring the ocean’s grammar. Worry / the beads of its clauses. Let your fingertips // find each verb’s pulse: wash, hull, drown. Trace / tenses: past and future’s crush” (52). Plunkett invites us to “Slide each phrase from the library // of connections. Words are sand, strand: grit / and brine, silent, beyond harrows” (52). The ocean appears here as lexical disconnection as well as facilitator of new meanings, and, after all the invitations to “unknit words’ knots” (52), the poem ends in “mute and godless prayer” (53). When no words remain attached to their meanings, there is no more to be said, and we are mute.
There are many more wonders to be discovered in these pages. “Cyclone Plotting” (36) makes masterful use of anaphora – each sentence beginning with “The danger is…” (36), often to comic effect, as the lines sprawl across the landscape page like the tide lazily flexing its muscles as it edges up the beach. “Confetti by Dada” (34-35) invites the reader to:
Open his love letters.
Take a pair of scissors.
Snip each word.
Place yourself gently
in a bag and shake. (35)
The string of imperatives works cleverly with the end-stopping to create bite-sized lines sugared like morsels of honeycomb slipped onto the tongue. The result? “Your portrait emerges / rare, ordinary, interchangeable: / lips, adore, golden, dark, I” (35). A marvellous conceit, it is beautifully executed.
Plunkett’s poetry is rare in that it is both exceptionally readerly and wittily writerly. There are allusions and quotations to delight in finding, there is nuance and brevity, and there are poems that will linger on the tongue and palate like an ageing malt whiskey: the tang of brine, astringent like alcohol, the warmth of loss and love, the mellow, amber light of dawn and dusk reflected on a yellowed sea. If you read no other poetry this year, read A Kinder Sea. It is Australian poetry at its most vibrant and loveliest, something to delight in during this time of collective pain.