Poetry review – VITAL CAPACITY: Kate Noakes listens to the breathing that runs through Fiona Larkin’s poems
Fiona Larkin writes about the breath, both in subject matter and technique, in her second pamphlet, Vital Capacity. Her focus is on the story of her Irish parents’ meeting in a TB sanatorium. Her father had contracted the disease at a seminary, her mother in hospital where she worked as a nurse. They were however not forthcoming on the details, as Larkin’s erasure poem ‘My Parents’ Admissions’ reveals – or rather seeks to conceal – in the crossing out of its couplets. What is left in the poem is the less shameful tale they preferred: ‘We met at a dance.’
There are many poems on the breath and breathing, including a ghazal on the Covid pandemic, ‘April Inhalations,’ where the refrain for the beautiful spring of 2020 is an emphatic ‘in the lockdown,’ and a longer fragmentary poem, ‘Breathalia.’ This looks at the different parts of the lungs and is split up and presented at various points through the book. Ordering like this is an effective pause for breath in the poem.
In other poems Larkin deploys breath-reflecting techniques including breath gaps or spaces, the breathy work of blocked prose poems, and a poem without stanza breaks, ‘The Voyage Out,’ which is intended to be read in one breath. ‘How to Ration New Medication’ is a found poem of shocking racism towards the Irish to justify not giving them TB medication.
Larkin has a keen eye for metaphor, as here where she imagines hanging out wet washing in ‘The Airbnb’s Back Story comes to Light’:
…I pin consumptive children, mouths turning to the mountain’s kiss of life. I squeeze water from their skinning limbs and usher wind to ventilate their tissues, contract and snap them back to supple shapes…
In ‘Mirror’ the ‘I’ of the poem is a Fortuny dress ‘silent in the absence of body.’
Larkin has an observant eye too. I liked the unusual ‘phlegm of plastic bags’ (‘Confluence’), and how each breath condenses as a ‘print of alveoli’ on a windowpane (‘Tracing the Night’). Her sense of humour is evident as well when she ticks off Barthes for his foolish utterances on the lungs in ‘Resurrecting the Author.’ I was sorry to turn the last page. More, please!