It's always interesting to see what direction a poet's second collection takes. The first tends to be full of possible pathways, many of which will be abandoned in the second. Felicity Plunkett's debut, Vanishing Point (2009), was a typical first book in this regard. Although all the poems in it displayed a characteristic linguistic flair, many were fairly straightforward accounts of strongly-felt experiences, e.g. childbirth.
In A Kinder Sea there are fewer of these and a conscious emphasis on metaphoric and rhythmic intensity, reminiscent at times of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The language is almost bursting out of its skin.
The opening of section 8 of Plunkett's "Glass Letters" sequence is just one example. "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." There's a strong rhetorical drive here but some of the details can be puzzling. How does bread "bloom" exactly? Who exactly is the "you" in "your"?
This leads on to a further enigmas. Many of the poems seem charged with the energy of autobiographical experience, but the details on which they are depend are kept opaque. Sometimes the book's love poems appear to addressed to a lover who has died, or has deserted the speaker or is merely in correspondence with her from a distance. Such factual reticence (following Dickinson's "tell it slant" dictum) can add force but it can also be frustrating to more literal temperaments.
Similarly, there are several poems which appear to refer to the intense grief experienced in a miscarriage. The sequence, "On Carrying: Seven Cledons", features numerous oblique but affecting references to it such as: "I felt dispute loosen itself from within when you // abjured your body; and mine" and "for all the whispered wisdom / of wish and want, you either // carry something or you don't". There are also quite a few free-standing individual poems which do clearly fulfil the varied promises of Vanishing Point. Among them are "Waiting Room", "Strand" and "Cyclone Plotting". The last, which convincingly sketches the impetuosity at the beginning of most love affairs, begins: " The danger is we'll drink this one quick drink too fast " and finishes with "The danger is / that I am making this up out of nothing. The danger is that."
Plunkett, who has been UQP's poetry editor for some years now, has also made a name for herself as an insightful reviewer of fiction. A Kinder Sea will almost certainly consolidate her reputation as a poet, but some less adventurous readers may miss the more confiding directness of the earlier collection.
- Geoff Page is a Canberra poet.
- A Kinder Sea, by Felicity Plunkett. University of Queensland Press. $24.99.