Gratitude in Regret: An Example in Three Poems (Part 2)

Eyoh Etim

The second poem to be analysed based on ‘Gratitude in Regret’ is Isobel Dixon’s ‘Plenty’. Isobel Dixon is a South African poet currently based in the United Kingdom. The poem ‘Plenty’ is rendered in eight stanzas of four lines each. A four-line stanza is called quatrain. The poem is written in run-on-lines or enjambment. Ideas flow from line to line and from stanza to stanza. The poem is also written in free verse.

 Dixon’s ‘Plenty’ constitutes a rememory of the persona’s childhood. It is a narrative poem that details the poverty that the family was exposed to and the single mother’s determination to keep the house from chaos and total disintegration using all maternal methods and techniques at her disposal. The children, five of them, fail to appreciate her effort as they misinterpret her disposition towards them, thinking that she was deliberately being difficult. These children, the persona inclusive, connive to rebel against their mother, sabotaging her efforts and the economy of the poverty-stricken house. Towards the end of the poem, it is revealed that time has passed and the persona is now an adult living in ‘Plenty’. It is now that she understands and appreciates her mother’s efforts for all those years. She misses everything about her childhood, especially her relationship with her siblings and her mother. This is gratitude in regret.

In the opening stanza, the poet writes: ‘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’. The word ‘young’ as used in the first line suggests ignorance and immaturity. The number of children mentioned in the stanza suggests a large family. It should be noted that throughout the poem, no father figure is mentioned. Thus, the poem can be said to deal with the theme of single parenting and the difficulty a single mother goes through raising all her children on her own without the support of a father figure. The children depicted in the poem are seen to be uncooperative as the alliterative expression ‘running riot’ exemplifies. Despite their restive and rebellious nature, the mother is portrayed as being very patient with them. This is captured in the expression ‘mother’s quiet despair’. If the mother is pique by the children’s unruly behaviour, she hardly shows it. This speaks of the widely acknowledged patience of mothers all over the world. The persona uses the remaining two lines to discourse the poverty of the family through the graphic description of the bath tub. The epithets deployed by the poet to describe the bath tub are ‘old’, ‘age-stained’ and ‘pocked’. These adjectivals all appeal to the sense of sight and convey to the reader the idea that the bath tub is dated and stained through over use. The expression ‘griffin claws’ is descriptive of the tub and suggests lack of beauty or aesthetics. The statement that the tub was never full implies lack of running water in the house, another sign of poverty. It can then be said that the first stanza sets the tone for the thematic concerns of the poem.

The second stanza reads: ‘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-’. The poverty in which the persona grew up in is deepened by the juxtaposition of images in this stanza. Water is seen to be ‘too dear’, a costly commodity. The expression ‘expanse of drought’ is a metaphor that describes the lack in the persona’s home and society. As subsequent lines reveal, the lack of water in the home is not unconnected with the general lack of water in the community, where the dams and the windmills are in a state of disrepair. The condition of the dams and the windmills are compared to the mother’s smile through the device of simile. This means that the poor woman’s smile is ineffective just like the dams and the windmills. She fails in her attempt to smile as the smile comes off as forced and artificial.

The mother’s frown is mistaken for a reprimand for the persona’s domestic mistakes when the fact is that the mother intends it for another purpose: to keep the order in the house. The poet deploys alliteration and consonance in the third stanza to account for the diversionary actions that the persona’s mother engages in as a way of putting her stamp of authority on herself in the house. In the fourth stanza, the persona lists some of the household needs on the mother’s shopping list which are of utmost concern to her: ‘Even the toilet paper counted’. This is a deeply psychological poem. The persona’s mother seems to use her hard countenance to keep things in their proper places, including time.

In the fifth stanza, the persona confesses to misconstruing the mother’s actions: ‘We thought her mean’; hence, their collective attempt to frustrate her efforts through rebellious acts like refusing to carry out chores and stealing her biscuits. The children enjoyed these escapades at their mother’s expense as can be seen in the oxymoronic expression, ‘lovely sin’ in the sixth stanza. This stanza also has alliteration and assonance in expressions like ‘lolling luxuriant’, ‘fat brass taps’ and ‘compliant co-conspirators’. Together these tropes capture the huge sense of satisfaction the children derived from taking sweet revenge on their mother, which the persona, now in retrospect, regrets.

The penultimate stanza returns to the present with the use of the adverb ‘now’ in the first line when the persona has grown up, become mature and is living in affluence. The expression ‘bubbles lap my chin’ is used to describe the fact that the persona does not lack water in her bath tub. This contrasts sharply with the poverty described at the initial stage of the poem. Notice the caesura in the first line of the seventh stanza before the declarative sentence that follows the long pause: ‘I am a sybarite’. The word ‘sybarite’ defines the persona’s current lifestyle of affluence and pleasure, which equally contrasts with her childhood time of poverty and want. She was not only in want of food and other necessities of life, but was also in want of understanding and appreciation of her mother’s huge sacrifices. This stanza also illuminates the title of the poem and can be seen in the expression: ‘water’s plentiful, to excess’. The first time the word ‘plenty’ is used in the poem is in the second stanza and it is used to emphasise its absence or lack. The expression ‘I leave the heating on’ implies that the persona enjoys constant power supply where she now resides compared to her childhood when she lived in a place where the dams and the windmills were not functioning.

In the final stanza, the persona expresses how she misses her mother and her sisters. The expression ‘scattered sisters’ exemplify alliteration. Looking back, the persona romantises the moments she shared with her sisters and mother despite how uncomfortable they must have been. For instance, she misses the bathroom squabbles’, where apparently they struggled for scarce water resources. She also misses her mother’s smile because she has now gained a better perspective on the stalled smile and the effort that was put to make the smile appear in the first place. Seen from the informed perspective of the present, the mother’s smile is no longer poor but rather it is ‘loosed from the bounds of lean, dry times’.

This poem again illustrates the idea of gratitude in regret because by the time the persona gets to understand the sacrifices that her mother made for her and her sisters, it is likely that the mother is no more alive, as time has passed by and must have taken her with it.

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