Review: Ali Jane Smithon Felicity Plunkett

A Break That Can Be Bridged

A week ago, this review had a different beginning. The first sentence was ‘Let’s begin with bridges’. And we’ll get to the bridges. But as I’m writing, at the end of a long day with my kids at home, I hear Leigh Sales giving kindness a plug on the 7:30 Report. I’ve already muted a Facebook Group called The Kindness Pandemic. A lot of the stories being told on The Kindness Pandemic were hopeful and heart-warming. But small acts of kindness just aren’t doing it for me.

Since I started work on this review, I’ve resisted turning it into an essay about the kindness movement. Felicity Plunkett’s poetry deserves our full attention. But the book is called A Kinder Sea, and as I’ve been reading and re-reading these poems, I’ve found I can’t stop thinking about kindness, or rather, what I have begun to call, in my head, the problem of kindness.

There is a rather strange, and somewhat veiled, story behind that title, A Kinder Sea. Open the book and there’s an epigraph,

I wish you a kinder sea

–  attributed to Emily Dickinson

That’s weird, I thought to myself. Usually an epigraph is footed with the name of its author, there’s no need to add ‘attributed to’. When I got to the ‘Notes’ at the back of the book there was an explanation for this strange inclusion of ‘attributed’. Here’s what it says:

The title A Kinder Sea is inspired by Michael Burch’s translation of a poem attributed to Plato: “Mariner, do not ask whose tomb this may be, but go with good fortune; I wish you a kinder sea.” Used with the kind permission of Michael Burch. “I wish you a kinder sea” is widely imagined to be from a letter by Emily Dickinson; however, this appears to be a myth …

When I did an internet search for ‘I wish you a kinder sea’, the blog I visited claimed it was a phrase from a letter Emily Dickinson wrote to her beloved sister-in-law, Catherine May Scott. There are pages and pages of quotes and memes that attribute the kinder sea quote to Dickinson. But a search for Michael Burch’s poem – described by him as a ‘loose translation’ – shows that it certainly does include the line ‘I wish you a kinder sea’. I suppose the phrase might be both a quote from correspondence between Emily Dickinson and Catherine May Scott and a loose translation of Plato.

Speculating on the origin of the phrase allowed me to see the idea of a ‘Kinder Sea’ as darkly humorous. The sea is famously unkind; full of life, covering most of the earth, but most of us only experience it in a limited, and liminal way. To get beyond a dip we need some form of material bridge, like a boat’s displacement of water, or the apparatus of scuba gear. The sea is a place of radical difference, a place we can’t inhabit, a limit, an other place. Michael Burch’s loose translation is supposed to be an epitaph for a mariner, a kinder sea being, I suppose, a sea that doesn’t kill you. And though there are several conflicting versions of the persona of Emily Dickinson, my preferred Emily is sharply ironic and witty, and quite likely to wish, in knowing defiance of reality and literary tradition, that the sea might be kind. But I don’t think Plunkett is joking. There are playful and humorous moments in this collection, but overall the atmosphere is sober and sad.

With exquisite timing, I found myself reading a blog post, ‘Talking about Love with the League of Good-for-Nothings’. The post included an interesting discussion on translating the English word ‘love’ into Japanese,

The Japanese word for love, ‘ai’ (愛) is a translation word which has been notoriously slow to become absorbed into everyday parlance in Japan… [I asked] whether anyone had ever used the Japanese word ai to say ‘I love you’ (愛している). Nobody had. Some had used suki (好き) … but then suki also means to like, as in to like peas or the colour yellow. As I spoke about love I used the terms ai more or less interchangeably with a Japanese transliteration of the English word love, rabu. This was not a thought-out choice of vocabulary and the question was raised … as to whether this indicated something unique about the meaning of the English word which might not easily by translated. …

After reading this account of various ways of thinking about love, I began to wonder about words that might help illuminate the idea of kindness – words like compassion, care, solidarity, and yes, love itself. What makes kindness different from these words? Is it that kindness is about how we behave, not what we feel? Is kindness a practice that means we treat people as though we feel love, even when we don’t?

In the dictionary, kindness is being friendly, generous and considerate – but is that what people really mean when they say ‘whatever you do, be kind’? Is that what Leigh Sales meant, when she urged us to be kind? I talked to my friend Susan McCreery, who is a writer and copyeditor, so she knows a lot about words, and she is also friendly, generous and considerate. She said she thinks about the word as being to do with kin – she thinks of kindness as treating everyone as though they were your kin. I’m not always very kind to my kin. And when I am, they don’t think it’s kindness, they think it’s the way things should be all the time. If I were truly kind I suppose I wouldn’t care, although Oprah Winfrey says that kindness will help you out with ‘personal well-being and success’. The internet search that turned up the Oprah Winfrey quote also elicited the information that kindness is one of the fruits of the spirit – that’s the Holy Spirit – along with love and joy and a couple of other fruits. Is kindness treating an other as though they were like me – of my kind? Is being kind about feeling we are the same? Or feeling we are different, but extending care and friendship anyway? Perhaps what people value about kindness is its vagueness, and subsequent utility as a social lubricant that helps pretend away relations of power. Kindness, it’s a total verb, all about being, always transactional, it’s not something you feel, it’s something you do.

But I promised we’d get to the bridges. The first poem in A Kinder Sea is ‘Sound Bridge’, the third but last ‘Bridge Physics’. ‘Bridge Physics’ opens with a quotation from a website, It’s a definition of the two major forces acting on a bridge; compression force, ‘a force that acts to compress or shorten the thing it is acting on’, and tension force, ‘a force that acts to expand or lengthen the thing it is acting on.’ Are bridges standing in for poems here? And their double action of compressed language and expanded thought?

Let’s read the poem that begins this book, ‘Sound Bridge’. It holds intertwined ideas about love and grief, knowledge and creation, inheritance and loss. The narrator watches an almost grown child sing in a choir. There’s a contrast between the joy and delight the singers experience and the piece of music they sing, the Lacrimosa, from Mozart’s Requiem – music of deep sadness. Mozart died before the work was complete and the Requiem was finished by one of his students. Plunkett tells this story in brief in the poem, commenting that:

                                                               We finish
nothing. Others will complete what we have

started: parents, teachers, struck as by felt-covered

When the wires in a piano are struck by their hammers, they vibrate and make sound. A note, another note, more notes and chords, singly and in unison, like singing voices. The word ‘struck’ is ominous though, right? The sound will fade, or be dampened, leaving other notes to pick up the melody. Later in the poem there is a reference to ‘the piano’s belly, a bridge’. The curvy shape of a grand piano suggests a pregnant belly, but the notes that strike and disappear also remind us of death. That’s where we are in this poem: thinking about death, feeling the intensity of life.

The poem is written in neat three-line stanzas, and Plunkett uses this form to make her line breaks and stanza ends do some extra work. The parent watching the choir describes the experience as

… Lurch
and tangle, the holding, the letting-


So, in the lines above, the phrase ‘letting go’ runs over, not just as a line break, but as a stanza break. This ramps up the emotion, the strain-pain-joy of seeing a child moving into adulthood, but also gives the word ‘go’ energy and vitality – to ‘go’ like an arrow released, like a swimmer off the blocks. Same but different is the stanza break made in this sentence,

Others will complete what we have


Here the break is that of the silenced note, the loving parents and teachers who can go so far and no further, and who feel the difficulty of ‘what we can’t teach’ – the things someone can only learn for themselves. By running this thought, not just over two lines, but down to the next stanza, Plunkett highlights the idea of hiatus in this particular kind of completion. A break that can be bridged. At this point in the poem we might have made the assumption that the bridge is big ‘L’ Love, or God, or something like that. But the bridge isn’t love itself, love’s on the other side, love is where we want to go. The bridge is song,

And now, if we are lucky, an angel
Strikes us into song. It’s the same bridge
To love, for us all: Mozart, Dylan, Rilke –
Who, if I cried out, would hear me? The same
question, same notes in new throats, same lesson strung
across centuries…

But it’s still sad. Because the narrator in this poem isn’t singing, she’s only watching and listening. As I’m reading, I’m hoping I’ll be let off the hook at the end of the poem, the way Mozart and his student help us out with music that makes the sadness huge, then releases us into a sea of sound. But in this poem, we don’t quite make it onto the bridge to love. The last line of the poem is still a sense of strain, still difficult,

   …and again you feel you want to – can almost – sing.

Close to the end of the book, ‘Bridge Physics’ begins as a collection of phrases arranged into sentences but not easily read for sense. There’s a falling apart and pushing together here, the words stumble along and gradually cohere. There’s song in this poem, too, here’s an instance:

                  … Tension, breakage, world’s gone 
wrong, but song, trust, bone, truth, keep
on unbroken

In the apparently contradictory forces of compression and tension, the narrator of the poem finds strength and steadiness, not in wholeness but in reciprocity. The poem has a mosaic quality, it’s a thing of pieces and forces, but a bridge that holds together, and there’s song.

Most of the time when I’m reading a book of poetry for review, I’m thinking about what’s there. But sometimes, I find I’m not thinking about what a poem is doing, but what it might do. I find myself reading as I read poems in draft. What happens if, in Plunkett’s poem ‘Yellow’, which has a lot of good stuff going on, instead of saying ‘surprising as a giant canary’, the line read ‘a giant canary’ and trusted the attentive reader to feel surprise for themselves? If, in the line, ‘She darkens, shoves/scrambled egg into a child’s mouth’, that ‘darkens’ was dispensed with, we’d still have all the information we need. There’s so much strength and interest in these poems that could be heightened and intensified by blossoming forth here, pruning there. The poem ‘Yellow’ is inventive, playful, at times emotionally difficult, but there are slips into a cliched version of poetic language – ‘peel back epidermis’ is a phrase and idea so well worn it’s no more arresting than the peeling of an orange. ‘Intravenous gold’ is intriguing, but then ‘you/ bubble under my skin/ like joy, like lust: blister /and hum’. Joy and lust blistering and humming are all we need – ‘bubble under my skin’, a tired and superfluous image, could be left out. I want tight, sharp reverberations, but too often when I find them they are sitting up against familiar phrases or unnecessary words. I so badly want to work just that little bit harder as a reader, but too often I’m offered the kindness of explanation and interpretation. These poems step up to big, interesting ideas and deep, difficult emotions. But I wish the language were allowed to groan and sway with conflicting forces of compression and expansion, and the lines became the dangerous, swinging things they could be.

There’s a poem in the collection, ‘Anomiidae’, that describes a beach walk; the slow, attentive, shell-collecting kind of walk. I didn’t know what Anomiidae meant, but I read the poem, then looked the word up online, and read the poem again. On my second reading, I knew that Anomiidae are a kind of clam, with pretty, pale, shiny, translucent, bumpy shells. Sometimes they are called ‘mermaids’ toes’. The poem uses the image of one single shell of a clam. Of course, a clam has a pair of shells when it’s living its clam life, feeding and growing. So here is a poem about a lonely walk, missing someone close, feeling like only half of a thing, feeling like a shell, but at the same time, enjoying the shells, how lovely they are, and the fact that they turn up on the beach and can be looked at, learned about, contemplated, understood. The thinking and learning and observing are a kind of compensation for the loneliness. There’s loss, but perhaps the writing comforts, even when it hurts, makes you feel sad, makes you miss the lost person acutely. Here are the opening lines:

the sea has eaten your heart
your edges sharpen, gold

I’ll admit I thought it sounded a tiny bit corny on my first reading, but on my second reading, when I knew I was reading about a clam, it was much more exciting. Because the heart of the clamshell is the clam flesh, the soft part, the living part. And in this poem, the remaining shell has been sharpened, and has become a beautiful colour. This poem is perhaps not just about loss, it’s a poem about writing a poem about loss. It’s a honed and sharp rendition of the teetering experience of pain and the strange relief found in intensity of feeling, like the account of listening to the Lachrimosa in ‘Sound Bridges’.

It’s a weird process, reviewing a poetry collection. Because whether or not it’s precisely my cup of tea, the process is intimate. As I work, I begin to feel close, even protective of the poet, though usually we’ve never met. I know that these are lines they spent years working on, I know they thought hard about the titles, arranged and rearranged the poem in different orders, revealed some things and made others opaque, included jokes, cheekiness, challenging stuff they don’t want to talk about but feel they have to, I know they took things out, put them back in, agonised over different ways of putting the syntax together, argued about grammar and structure, settings and feelings and words. Reading a poetry collection, end to end, not just dipping in, but reading it more than once, reading closely, carrying the book around, reading poems in different places, is intimate. And with this intimacy, I lose the ability to be kind, and gain something else. I think it might be respect or solidarity or compassion. Might be love.

Works Cited

Alexander, Talking about Love with the League of Good-for-NothingsLove from Tokyo blog.

Michael BurchEpitaphs.

Angelissa CassianiThursdays at the coffee shop.