Analysis of Poem Plenty by Isobel Dixon
Isobel Dixon and Plenty
Plenty focuses on the contrasting feelings of a person who, as a child, experienced growing up in relative poverty yet who is now, as an adult, able to put her memories into context, especially with regards to her mother.
This is also a poem about nostalgia, taking the reader back through the first person speaker's mind to a household in Karoo, South Africa, where the poet grew up with her sisters and mother.
As the poem progresses the domestic scenes from the past increase in detail, with the antics of the sisters fraying the nerves of the stoical mother with the clasp-like smile. And the importance of water becomes increasingly clear, that part of the world being subject to extreme dry weather.
Isobel Dixon left her native South Africa to study in the UK and now is based in Cambridge and London. Her lyrical poetry tends to concentrate on the subject of displacement, exploring the past - homeland and her roots - and present - the UK - through the natural world, family and cultural values.
Plenty first appeared in the book Weather Eye, 2001 and is a popular choice for many a school and college curriculum because of its accessibility and use of poetical devices.
When I was young and there were five of us,
all running riot to my mother’s quiet despair,
our old enamel tub, age-stained and pocked
upon its griffin claws, was never full.
Such plenty was too dear in our expanse of drought
where dams leaked dry and windmills stalled.
Like Mommy’s smile. Her lips stretched back
and anchored down, in anger at some fault –
of mine, I thought – not knowing then
it was a clasp to keep us all from chaos.
She saw it always, snapping locks and straps,
the spilling: sums and worries, shopping lists
for aspirin, porridge, petrol, bread.
Even the toilet paper counted,
and each month was weeks too long.
Her mouth a lid clamped hard on this.
We thought her mean. Skipped chores,
swiped biscuits – best of all
when she was out of earshot
stole another precious inch
up to our chests, such lovely sin,
lolling luxuriant in secret warmth
disgorged from fat brass taps,
our old compliant co-conspirators.
Now bubbles lap my chin. I am a sybarite.
The shower’s a hot cascade
and water’s plentiful, to excess, almost, here.
I leave the heating on.
And miss my scattered sisters,
all those bathroom squabbles and, at last,
my mother’s smile, loosed from the bonds
of lean, dry times and our long childhood.
Analysis of Plenty
Plenty is a lyrical poem that focuses on the family household of the past, the speaker looking back as she luxuriates in the present, reminiscing about childhood scenes as her mother tried to keep a tight hold on things.
- The main theme is time and how perceptions alter over time. In particular, it's the change in how the speaker in the poem sees her mother - there is a profound difference between the Mommy of her childhood and the mother of her present, who has by now passed away, loosed from the bonds/of lean, dry times..
- The speaker's childhood takes up the bulk of the poem, the final two stanzas being the retrospective part, where a new awareness becomes apparent. The once poor but happy child is now an adult sybarite someone who relishes sensual luxury.
- But despite this awareness, the speaker feels an emptiness and misses her home and her scattered sisters.
There are several secondary themes running through this poem:
i) the nature of and behaviour in, childhood.
ii) relationships children have with their parents and specifically, the mother.
iii) how to deal with feelings and memories.
With strong imagery and constant shifts between the personal and collective (the I and we, my, mine and our) the reader is drawn in to the chaotic household of the speaker.
The first object of focus is the bathtub and the fact that it was never full due to the lack of water, a constant recurring sub-theme. From this initial opening image the reader is then treated to a close up profile of the mother, in particular her hard pressed smile. Or is it a forced grimace brought on by the rioting children?
- Note the language contrasts between the atmosphere in the house and mother's attempts to keep things stable - riot/despair/age-stained/pocked/anger/chaos and anchored down/clasp/snapping locks and straps/clamped hard.
With varying yet careful, straightforward syntax, from single sentence stanzas to short pithy half lines...Like Mommy's smile....We thought her mean...I am a sybarite...there is a natural flow between caesura (pauses, usually in the middle of a line).
The ignorance of the child back then, unaware that the mother had to be firm and mean to keep the house and family afloat, is contrasted sharply with the adult who can now enjoy plenty.
So the new found freedoms come only because the speaker once experienced times that were lean and hard and dry. She may even be feeling a little bit of guilt with the bubbling water up to her chin, where once upon a time it felt sinful to be stealing an extra inch.
With a mix of contrasting, musical and everyday language, imagery and colourful recall, this poem explores those feelings that accrue over time between the past and the present, between ignorance and knowledge, innocence and maturity.
In particular, looking back into personal history and family routines is something common to all humans. Attempting to put childhood experiences into perspective is a tricky business but Plenty seems to achieve its goal with humorous mischief and keen observation to the fore.
More Analysis of Plenty - Poetical Devices
Plenty is a free verse poem of 8 stanzas, a total of 32 lines. There is no set rhyme scheme and the metre (meter is American English) varies from line to line, so the beat alters, producing a more conversational feel to the poem.
There are quite a few poetical devices in the poem, including:
When words starting with consonants are close to each other in a line or lines they create special sounds for the reader, adding texture and interest -
running riot/dams leaked dry/snapping locks and straps/the spilling:sums/biscuits-best/lolling luxuriant/compliant co-conspirators/scattered sisters/
Assonance occurs when similar vowel sounds echo or repeat, close to one another in a line or lines -
and anchored/saw it always/snapping locks and straps/sums and worries/fat brass taps/compliant co-conspirators/leave the heating/miss my scattered sisters/at last.
Enjambment is the continuation of a line or stanza without punctuation or pause, allowing the meaning or sense to carry on., so altering the flow of language. It occurs in every stanza except 4, and is also present between stanzas 3/4 and 5/6.
Hyperbole is exaggeration to create an effect and can be seen in the phrase running riot in the first stanza.
There is use of metaphor in stanzas 2 and 3 where the smile of the mother is said to be a clasp, which is a metal device for fastening belts or jewellery together.
Stanza 4 also contains a metaphor ...Her mouth a lid.......so the mother's mouth becomes a lid, used for covering and holding things in.
When a phrase contains contradictory terms it is said to be an oxymoron. So in stanza 4 the line....and each month was weeks too long...and also in stanza six...lovely sin.
When the speaker in stanza 2 states that ...where dams leaked dry and windmills stalled/Like Mommy's smile....this is a simile.
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