Plunkett, Felicity. A Kinder Sea. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2020. RRP: $24.99, 112pp. IBSN: 9780702262708
Since taking out the prestigious Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Prize in 2009 for her debut collection, Vanishing Point, Felicity Plunkett has become rather accomplished in Australia’s literary landscape. Not only has her poetry been widely praised by critics and readers alike, she has edited poetry for University of Queensland Press (UQP), written numerous essays for various literary publications and her criticisms and reviews can frequently be read in issues of Cordite and Australian Book Review. Poets nationwide – both emerging and established, often look to Plunkett as a guide for inspiration.
So, when the opportunity came for me to review Plunkett’s latest collection, A Kinder Sea (released through UQP in early February), I jumped at the chance. Though I was aware of Plunkett’s reputation in the literary world, I had yet to really read her work, beyond what could be found online or in various anthologies.
With a title like A Kinder Sea, one would generally expect the poems—which are a culmination of work written over the past seven years—to have a certain theme to them. I myself approached the collection expecting it to be all about nature, the ocean, the crashing of the waves and so on. But in truth, the book is so much more than that.
While there is indeed a strong connection to the ocean and the way it behaves within the poems featured in the collection, it’s not just about the sea and nature itself. ‘It is a book of unspoken hopes, un-mourned losses, of mute and unprayable prayers and letters never sent. [Poet] Paul Celan said poems make their way to their readers like letters in bottles, making their way to shore, or, at best, to heartland’, says Plunkett in A Kinder Sea’s accompanying press release. ‘I hope these poems find heartland in readers, and that my explorations of courage, connection, resilience and craft resonate with them.’
There is no doubting Plunkett’s ability to turn a phrase, to draw readers into her themes with her unique approach to imagery (such as evidenced in the below poem, ‘Glass Letters’).
Your absence sharpens the sea’s teeth.
Dear you, days have passed since my last
confession. Words wash
and maul me […]
I test the angle of the stars to find
altitude: distance from dissolution, a place
to anchor. (6)
Though this poem is quite descriptive (perhaps even a little flowery at times, given that it’s nine pages long), this passage in particular showcases the great command Plunkett has over her use of imagery. The idea that the sea has teeth and can attack like a monster is an interesting take—a vivid and striking description.
While the longer form poetry is something of a feature in A Kinder Sea, Plunkett handles the shorter form just as deftly. If I was to choose a favourite of the collection, it would probably be ‘Interval’:
Your absence weighs more than the stretch
of your body
over mine …
hard as the moon that asks the moon-
flower to raise its face. (75)
That said, if you pick up A Kinder Sea with the intention of it being a quick read, you’ve probably chosen the wrong collection. Pianist Simon Tedeschi says in the media release, ‘This book should be read slowly and lusciously, so each poem can be read on your tongue like a jewel’. This is something I tend to agree with, at least to a certain degree.
One of the reasons A Kinder Sea has received such rave reviews even before its release is because of the way in which Plunkett has played with style and remade the traditional form of poetry. ‘Blood Days: Monochords’ is one such example of this.
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 … (57)
If you consider the above excerpt as written, it’s still just as strong as the other snippets of poems mentioned. However, in the collection itself, formatting plays a big part in the way Plunkett has explored different forms and styles of poetry to create something new. It’s list-based, and in the physical book, the text appears in landscape, rather than the traditional portrait. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition and something I’ve only just begun to encounter in new release poetry collections such as Anna Jacobson’s Amnesia Findings and Rae White’s Milk Teeth. But the style Plunkett uses is that more descriptive literary approach rather than the more dense and experimental forms of poetry that I’ve encountered recently.
‘Cyclone Plotting’ is actually another favourite of mine, and another example of Plunkett’s experimentation, this time with prose poetry:
The danger is that I’m well out of my depth in this gutterless downpour. The danger is that you feel the mercury’s rise and rise. The danger is you don’t feel its rise, retaining your leather-jacketed cool. The danger is that I’m making this up out of nothing. The danger is that. (36)
Be it the repetition of this particular poem, or even just that it’s written as one full paragraph in sentences that run onto one another that almost reminds me of e.e cummings. In that way, I think it’s more of a tribute to 20th century modernism and the literary greats to come out of said movement.
And it’s not just examples such as this that make A Kinder Sea something of a tribute to literary greats. Paul Celan’s previously referred to quote on poetry appears at the start of ‘Glass Letters’ (6-7). A Kinder Sea is divided into five parts, each with an epigraph by authors such as Emily Dickinson and Mireille Juchau.
Not only that, many of the poems in which the sea is a major focus are actually in tribute to missing sailors, with snippets from telegrams or letters they sent to loved ones before their death. Further information on the background of some of this is found in the extensive notes section at the end of the book (91-96). It’s a nice touch and adds even more value to the collection as a whole.
Felicity Plunkett’s A Kinder Sea is a homage to relationships and the things we do not say. The work found in this collection acts as little messages and reminders of the strength we can find in humanity, as complicated as that may be. It is a unique addition to the poetry world, and a reminder of why Plunkett’s work is so revered.
Jackie Smith is a freelance journalist, editor and proof-reader and marketing graduate based in Brisbane. Her work has been published through a variety of local and national media outlets. Follow her via her blog, Jackie Smith Writes, or Twitter (@jasmith_89) for regular updates.