PLENTY by Isobel Dixon
Sample Answer

Comment on how Isobel Dixon makes the poem ‘Plenty’ so vivid and emotional.

‘Plenty’ is a poem which looks back at the past with nostalgia. It is a very emotional poem and employs a number of literary devices to convey a vivid picture about the two worlds explored – the past and its paucity; the present and its plenty. In this essay I will explore how the writer uses strong imagery and other devices to effectively capture a vivid experience laced with many nuanced emotions.

The austere living conditions are captured with vividness in the first few stanzas. The emotions attributed to these experiences are multiple. The enamel tub was ‘old,’ ‘age-stained and pocked,’ and was never full.

…dams leaked dry and windmills stalled.

The poet uses the vocabulary of excess to describe the scarcity – almost hinting at how the desire for something is much stronger in the absence of the thing desired. ‘Leaked’ is typically used to describe a water leak, and in the context of these lines it is rather obvious, as dams hold water. However, it is the dryness which is leaking, which connotes how the aridity spreads and affects everything around the dam, affecting the lives of many. While the verb ‘leaked’ connotes excess, the extreme scarcity is described through the word, which creates a vivid image of the oppressive lack of water –the manipulation and juxtaposition of words in such a way enables the reader to visualize the slow and invisible reach of dryness more imaginatively.

‘Windmills stalled,’ is another powerful image which conveys the stillness of the air vividly. It also connotes the lethargy and languor which seems to descend upon the environment. This marks the lack of electricity.

The shopping list introduced in the third stanza, which continues to the fourth is a visual image which informs the reader of the number of things the mother has to pay attention to. The use of the list reflects the extending needs of the family and creates a certain tension to the image as well through the use of enjambment. The following line ‘each month was weeks too long’ highlights the slowness once again and the level of difficulty and pressure the mother had to endure. These imagery and descriptions not only captures the visual field of the speaker’s past, but it also captures the anguish of the mother in a sort of tangible way.

The poet vividly describes the experiences of the children and their behaviour with the use of visual imagery laced with sibilance.

‘snapping locks and straps – the spilling:’

‘Skipped chores, – swiped biscuits.’

The excessive sibilance and especially the ‘s’ sounds which appear together at the ending and beginning of successive words (and in the middle of words) lends a sense of being phonetically trapped– this feeling of being locked in is further illustrated by the two images ‘locks and straps.’ The onomatopoeic word ‘snapping’ perhaps captures the desire for emancipation from poverty felt by the children. At the same time, the word also captures an outburst of anger. While ‘skipped’ in this context means the negligence of the chores, it also hints at the childish playfulness and energy in its other meaning – to leap forward.

Perhaps the most convincing image of the first six stanzas is how the poet describes the way they used to steal water. The verb ‘stole’ effectively captures the trepidation and desperation the children felt in their deprivation. It is done against the instruction of the mother. It is a ‘precious’ inch, which amplifies the joy the children received from this ‘lovely sin.’ The way they valued water in their circumstances is vividly captured through these verb, adjective and noun (sin) choices. ‘Lolling’ captures the sounds of lapping water, and the alliterative phrase ‘Lolling luxuriously’ adds to the immense value placed on water – the additional inch is a luxury. The personification of the taps (compliant co-conspirators) reveal a sort of fascination or an obsession that the children have developed toward the taps – which is yet another vivid image that shows the scarcity of water.

The above mentioned imagery, in all its vividness, captures a nuanced portrayal of the childhood of the speaker. The phrases ‘Running riot,’ and ‘bathroom squabbles’ capture the frivolous play of the siblings and the carefree joy that marked those years. Yet, there is also an undertow of mellow seriousness which marks the poem. The tub was ‘never full,’ the mother seemed cross quite often, and she seemed rather distant and grim.

The mother is described through the matured perception of the narrator who seems to regret the way she used to perceive her mother. The mother is portrayed through imagery which conveys a stifling silence. Her smile, like the windmills, stalled – the joy in her life has started to fade away as she is constantly struggling to make ends meet. She holds all the tension and stress about managing the finances and providing for the children to herself, clamping down all troubles and remaining silent. The phrase ‘anchored down’ describing her lips connotes the weight she carries – the lack of water, power and the shortage of food takes a heavy toll on her. This is further tightened by the words ‘clasp’ and ‘clamped.’ Her grim and mean disposition which she assumed to maintain order in the fragile circumstances is done with the knowledge that her children may view her as unkind, domineering, hostile and harsh. The poem thus illustrates Love’s ‘austere offices,’ to borrow a phrase from Robert Hayden. A sense of admiration, respect and warmth towards the mother is shown through these rather regretful reminiscing of the manner that the speaker saw the mother when she was a child. The children thought she was mean. This word, once again, capture not only the unkind nature they noticed in the mother, but also the stinginess they perceived in her, not fully realizing the many aspects she had to manage.  

In the penultimate stanza, the speaker shifts her focus to the present, where she is indulging in the luxury which starkly contrasts with the ‘lean’ times of her childhood. ‘Bubbles lap my chin’ is both visual and tactile imagery, and is thus powerful, letting the reader imagine her experience. The reference to a ‘hot cascade’ to describe the shower is once again tactile, visual and auditory imagery. These images effectively create a sensory contrast. However, even while she enjoys the present luxury, the lines betray a subtle sense of guilt or concern. The caesura after the description of the bubbles is followed by the confession that she is a sybarite; her experience and knowledge that there are many children and adults who face serious scarcity of essentials such as water and food makes her unable to enjoy the ‘excess’ which she is privileged with – therefore, a tone of confession permeates the penultimate sentence. This may link back to the ‘lovely sin’ which she mentions, when they, as children, stole few inches of water. Her perceived ‘sinfulness’ of reveling in such a luxurious lifestyle irritates her conscience. The final stanza captures her nostalgia about family – the first two lines capture their playfulness in the bathroom. The word scattered creates an image of water scattering or splashing as they squabble. Finally, an intense feeling of loss seems to haunt her as she imagines how her mother’s smile will be released ‘from the bonds of lean, dry times and our long childhood.’ The early years of struggle and drought are described as a bondage which chained her to suffering. It robbed her of happiness. In a blend of emotions such as nostalgia, gratefulness and loneliness, the poet imagines her mother free and happy at last – a smile stretched across her face.

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