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Book Review: Vanishing Point by Felicity Plunkett

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There's a heady femininity in Felicity Plunkett's Vanishing Point. Taken as a whole, the work creates a semiotic discourse that is so rich with jouissance that I'm reminded strongly of the Helene Cixous' edict "Write yourself. Your body must be heard." (The Laugh of the Medusa). This is Plunkett's unique style — to take the reader deep within the gestural, rhythmic moment of the body, desconstructing and rebuilding in such a way that something new arises. The work is set up in three sections, each pivoting around the notion of 'flakes'. It's an evocative word, conjuring different associations — from the trivial, as in flakes of skin, bits of nothingness, tiny hints of something that is almost inconsequential at face value, to the more intense idea of disintegration, loss, flaking away, aging, and attempting to piece together that which can't be reconstructed.

"Flakes of a Dream" is, in many ways, the most harsh of the three sections. It opens with the terrible guilt of the Atom Bomb in "Journey of a Dead Man": "Atomic radiance/ bursts onto your tongue like ridicule." The work progresses through the wordplay mourning of sitting shiva and Shiva the Hindu destroyer — bereavement, longing, and renewal taking the personal into the realm of the universal. It's not just the poet's voice that becomes personal. It's also Robert Oppenheimer's voice, the Hindu God Shiva's voice, the voice of the mourning wife, and a myriad of guises from mother, a child watching a father die – "My feelings' syntax made no sense." ("Learning the Bones"), to a grown woman dodging love's commitment:

Your own abjection excites and nauseates you
as you raise your arm
higher, and wait
to lose yourself in gravity. ("Flakes Shaking Free")

The language is tense, intense, and painful, but so taut and fresh that almost every line could be pulled out and recited on its own to powerful effect: "The rhapsodic divorces the epiphanic." ("Cottonwoods Screen Japan"). Though the overall impact of this chapter is mourning, loss, and a dream that is pursued at the edges of memory, there is always a central figure of life — the speaker standing amidst her destruction. Sitting Shiva progresses to the smashing of glass at a Jewish wedding — the symbolism of the smashed glass functioning in its traditional role of a reminder of loss amidst celebration:

Your shivaistic tongue soaped,
your bride-silent eyes averted:
there is no washing away.
("The Smashing of the Glass")

Behind every poem in this section is violence, sometimes subtle, as in the hint of annihilation against the tenderness of motherhood in "Ferrying", or the more explicit as in the seven sections of "Your Violent Past": "eyes closed against the rapturous/violence of that fire."

The second section, "A Flake of your Life" is lighter, achieving power and intensity through an exploration of love, rather than death. The poems move in closer, and most take a second person perspective, putting the reader in the intimate role of addressee. The poems skirt around the heart, finding meaning and creation in those words and moments that struggle to form, and appear to miss:

In flakes you glimpse a future,
or some other time, ghosted with imaginings:
what we slough off unaware
might become, for someone else, precious and troubling.
("A Flake of Your Life")

Alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm are all used to powerful effect, with a number of the poems using strong structural elements. "Sea-Margins" for example, employs a beautiful circular repetition with its Italian sonnet form. This poem reminds of Edna St. Vincent Millay at her best, with its rhythms and problem/resolution structure:

rise humming: I listen for the place, where,in shells' curled ears, the sea's lost memory sleeps
entwined with coral, brine and water's glare.
My drying thighs forget its salty deeps.

The final section, “To Break into Flakes”, moves in so close that the human body becomes almost abstract: cerebellum, cerebrum, the uterus, the perineum, pelvis, veins, contractions, milk filled breasts, clavicles, and blood beating below the surface of skin all provide fodder for exploration. The poems move around sex, childbirth, DNA, but above all, motherhood, uncovered in the most personal, intimate details, and broadened into the universal:

love's vernix whitens two swimmers
against the cold before
the depths disgorge them,
blood-gas fizzing,
finding ways of breathing again: new ways. (“Undersea”)

In Plunkett's world, everything is animated, life and death working hand in hand to create something new and unknown:


Cells fidgeted and shaped themselves:
a factory of lines, alive, industrious:
moving out to start new stories
the generation of everything:
the blood's start.
(“The Geometry of Vanishing”)

Viewing birth through the eyes of death and death as creator of life, Vanishing Point moves in closely enough for the reader to recognise the personal contours of domesticity – a life progression that is almost shockingly familiar and intimate, while moving outward enough to create its own mythology. The poetry is dense, with inventive imagery; uncompromisingly charting female experience, rage, love, tenderness, hunger and fear, across the human body and through imagination. Even at its most painful, in the midst of Cancer, bodily violence, or nuclear annihilation, there is a wry humour and detachment – a winking eye towards precision in meaning. In every poem in this collection, there is always a turning point, a swift transition, and a denouement that is sharp. This is a collection that is instantly accessible, but invites multiple re-readings, each time finding something new, fresh and inventive in its lines.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.