Alexis Late Reviews Felicity Plunkett’s A Kinder Sea

By | 23 April 2021

Then there is the poem ‘Three’, which ends with the line ‘be kind, be kind, kind’, which ties into the book’s title, a reference to a phrase attributed to Emily Dickinson – ‘I wish you a kinder sea’ – but as Plunkett pointed out in an interview, was never actually written by her. How did the myth originate? And why is it so popular? The quote is a literal paradox: the sea could never be kind, as a wild thing beyond human descriptors, and even when it appears calm, there are predators within. It must be life that is being referred to (one thinks of the famous line from Hamlet: ‘to take arms against a sea of troubles’) yet it also applies to that inner sea – that sea of thoughts, memories and feelings that churn within us, calm and gentle at times, but tumultuous or cruel when life becomes hard. Dickinson, one of Plunkett’s formative poets, was a kind person by all accounts – the quote sounds like something she would say, to the friend she supposedly said it to, hopeful and reassuring. In actual fact, the phrase derives from a passage of Plato, as translated by Michael R. Burch, and its sentiments are apt for A Kinder Sea in more ways than one, as the collection also contains elegies for men lost at sea:

Mariner, do not ask whose tomb this may be,
but go with good fortune: I wish you a kinder sea.

One such elegy is ‘Disappearing Act’, which reads as a letter to the Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, who went missing in 1975, after setting off on an ocean journey as part of a performance art piece titled ‘In search of the Miraculous’. Plunkett addresses him with intimate empathy, which makes one wonder if the poet relates to him on some deeper level, if his story speaks to something in her that longs to lose itself at sea. She writes:

In a slippery-shingled world
gravity became your ludic friend – 
your avant heavy with visions 
of afterwards.
Your early work charts 
falls: ‘Broken fall (organic)’ from a bike
into an Amsterdam canal; ‘Broken
Fall’ into a trestle;
from a chair perched on the roof, becoming
again the bundle your mother
threw to make
an impossible escape. ‘Fall I’
(Los Angeles 1970)
can neither forget nor recall
Winschoten 1944.

Plunkett refers to Ader’s traumatic childhood against the backdrop of World War Two, and the tragic execution of his father during the Holocaust. She seems to suggest that the sea stopped Ader from falling into an abyss of pain – there was no longer anything to fall from, not a building nor history itself. He ‘tilted’ into the sea, or into the sky, and the lines imply gentleness; to tilt after all, would be better than to fall. Perhaps he did find ‘the miraculous’, as Plunkett’s poem wonders, if the miraculous could mean to journey beyond the fear of another fall.

Bridges feature prominently in this collection as well – A Kinder Sea begins with the idea of a ‘sound bridge’, where the poet watches her teenage son sing in a choir – song, in this poem, being the element that bridges the inevitable, growing apartness between a parent and their adult child. Song is also perceived as a series of bridges for connecting artists across the centuries, who express the same longings which came before them, albeit in different ways, and communing with each other across time. The penultimate poem, ‘Bridge Physics’, considers another angle, namely, how to avoid breakage from the weight of longing.

Plunkett writes of the forces of compression – adapting her language from an engineering textbook – which might also apply to the human heart. She turns the poem itself into a bridge of sorts: the piece has two sides, from which the same words are repeated in a pattern as they move towards the poem’s middle, leading to a poem within a poem, a fortification. The piece begins: ‘And you there, here, near as the song of what is silent: current pulse’ and ends with the lines inverted: ‘Pulse and current. The silence of what is: you, here, near as this song.’ It’s a feat of poetic engineering, if you will, and testament to the compelling possibilities of form.

If there could be a single poem that represents the collection as a whole, however, it might be the aforementioned ‘Glass Letters’, which explores notions that feel central to A Kinder Sea, netting together its symbolic nautical references:

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?

There is the double meaning of ‘craft’ and the concept of messages in bottles, which the poems also operate as, due to the prevalence of the second person pronoun, as well as the hope that they’ll wash up on the shores of the readers they’d most resonate with, or who are most in need of them. ‘Glass Letters’ also links to Plunkett’s own admissions regarding the collection. In an interview with UQP, when asked what she hopes readers will draw from A Kinder Sea, she answered, ‘Paul Celan said poems make their way to readers like letters in bottles, making their way to shore, or, at best, to heartland. I hope that these poems find heartland in readers.’ These hopes are sure to be realised by readers who enjoy contemporary lyric poetry and/or are in need of a kinder sea, who at the very least might find respite in this eloquent collection, in that passion for language and the translation of feeling, that is, however difficult the task, the surest way to negotiate the sea inside ourselves.

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