A review of A Kinder Sea by Felicity Plunkett

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

A Kinder Sea
by Felicity Plunkett
University of Queensland Press
2020, $24.99aud, 112pp, IBSN: 9780702262708

Felicity Plunkett’s poetry is meticulous: careful, exquisite, and precise. This is what comes, perhaps, from being a poetry editor for over a decade. Plunkett’s latest collection, A Kinder Sea, is underpinned by a powerful intelligence and deep-seated empathy.  The book is scaffolded by epigraphs from Emily Dickinson, the spirit mother of this work. Dickinson’s spare condensery is evident throughout A Kinder Sea, which is made up of five sections, each containing a small number of poems built around the oceanic themes: “A Corner of the Sea”, “Carmine Horizon”, “In Search of the Miraculous”, “Grace”, and “Heartland”.

The book opens with a maternal poem, “Sound Bridge”, which functions almost as an epigraph to the rest of the collection.  The poem, which won second place in the 2018 ACU Prize for Poetry, is set in Hodonín in the Czech Republic, where a mother listens to her son sing the mournful Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem. “Sound Bridge” is a dense meditation on love, music, art, and the way in which grief, loss, and joy are intertwined at the moment of creation:

Lacrimosa dies illa: all day grief’s weft across joy’s 
warp. 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. Work untrans-
latable, but we feel their heft, close: light

The Lacrimosa was famously unfinished, as our children are, our work, our lives: “We finish/nothing”. This notion of a bridge of sound, is part of what the collection as a whole strives towards. There are other bridges in the book, both overt, as in “Bridge Physics”, which has a breathless, staccato beat – creating a very different kind of bridge to the one created in “Sound Bridge”, and less overt, such as the cracking “secret” underwater seams of “Underwater Caulking”, or the “edgy mutiny” rhythmic bridges “red keys please” of “Songs in a Red Key”.  All of these pieces and many others in A Kinder Sea play with notions of tension and breath and the secret bridges that we build, or which crumble beneath us.

The poetry is often referential, utilising art (Bas Jan Aer, Chris Marks), music (Mozart, Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Neil Young), poetry and fiction (Auden, Plath, Rilke, Dickinson, Celan, William Carlos Williams, Tzara, Flaubert, Henry James, Mireille Juchau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Wu Cheng’en, Mark Doty, Ali Smith) letters, telegraphs, or even the visual image of the sea itself, so beautifully depicted in this work, as a launching point.  The Nillumbik Exphrasis award winning “Becoming the Sea” begins with Chris Mark’s “Imagine Becoming the Sea”, but as with much of this work, moves between the external world of the ocean and the internal world of the human, moving fluidly between these two watery bodies, so that the theoretical, the visual/external, and the internal experience meld in a way that feels seamless:

I want you to find me. I want my disappearance to be 
untranslatable. Feeding prayers into the sea’s throat

The references always come back to the present moment of creation—a position in time and space that is uniquely original, as in the Tristan Tzara inspired “Confetti by Dada”: 

Cut it out.
Open his love letters.
Take a pair of scissors.
Snip each word.
Place yourself gently
in a bag and shake.
Your portrait emerges
rare, ordinary, interchangeable:
lips, adore, golden, dark, I. 

The art of being present and paying deep, careful attention, is another constant theme through the book, and an antidote to its deadly opposite, thoughtlessly using things (and people) and throwing them away.  As you might expect with a book that is inspired by the ocean, there is a ever-present ecological focus.  This is particularly evident in the poem “Trash Vortex”, where the sea, always mutable, is not only choking on human rubbish, but also providing a harbinger of our demise: 

The sea is dying, gorging on
trash, shame, debris. Then where
to stage the turning-back
of impossible questions
of durable human refusal

The sea inside—the 60% water that makes up our bodies, our emotions, sexuality, perception—and the sea outside, collide and combine in this work in way that feels exhilarating and entirely natural. The sea is alien, but we are from it, of it, part of it, and the poems play with the tension between union, dissolution, and delineation.  The work mirrors this tension between internal and external; man and sea, in ways that are often linguistic and metapoetic. Words are imbibed: “Doctor, I have swallowed a glass/alphabet, Syllables sting/and scrabble”, become living creatures – “sand-scuttling sidelong”, or play in the surf:

Dive or catch: swung
floorboard, flung
askew, loaf in thrum
& pummel: let yourself be
sand-kneaded, foam-leavened. (“Thirteen Uses for Poem”)

Much of the book is made up of sequences.  “Glass Letters” is the longest, made up of twelve parts. If you believe that ‘love’ should no longer be a subject of poetry (“No hearts in poems, says my novelist friend”), this  sequence that will change your mind. The poems begin in epistolary form, “Dear you”, and set up pronouns that involve an absent object and solitary subject. The poetic space of this work is distinct and liminal: “If you hear this, my syllables have arrived.” with an eco-poetic quality that is not only rooted in the sea, but also the earth, where the connection between subject and object becomes animal, vegetable, and even mineral:

Name a mouthful of earth, your words bloom
like bread, opening
froth-skirted roses in an old garden 
each syllable discarding its petal
under my ribs. Belief in you a root
my hands plunge to pull at: evidence of life

Though these are personal poems, rooted in love, loss, grief, and rebirth, there is a strong, though subtle underlying politic which takes the form of advocacy. Collective empowerment is an important theme throughout the work, linking back to the title–kindness as a radical act:

When all that divides 
us calculates its losses and I
am made to learn
grace, in the place silence
breaks, bruises open
dark sails—I want to know one thing, try
to hold it, try
again, to be kind, to
be kind, kind.

A Kinder Sea is a complex, beautiful, condensed and delicate book. The work, which has an imagistic quality throughout, bears multiple re-readings, always revealing new insight, rhythms, and patterns.