Vital Capacity, Fiona LarkinThe jacket is a turquoisey green, with the title in fairly large orange lower case, left-justified in the top left hand corner, with the author's name below it in smaller orange italics. A large line drawing of one human lung occupies most of the left hand side of the jacket, and the other lung is on the back.

Broken Sleep Books, 2022     £7.99

The power of notes and epigraphs

Flicking forward from the back of the pamphlet, four words in capital letters with a page to themselves — ‘BREATHE OUT YOUR UNREST’ — draw me in. Some brief notes at the end of the publication exert another pull (because of literary links) to Barthes, Mansfield and Keats. And mention of ‘Breathe on me, breath of God’ has me hunting for the hymn.

This is an intriguing pamphlet! An epigraph to the title poem defines ‘Vital Capacity’ as ‘the maximum amount of air exhaled / after taking the deepest of breaths’. There’s an echo of breath in ‘Resurrecting the Author’:

This matter of breath —
Barthes, you signal the death
of all but the words,

want me to discard
biographical context,
to interpret the language alone.

But this reader absorbs, and cannot
forget, your tubercular scars,
your fatherlessness

A note on the poem titled ‘This is not a letter...’ explains it’s ‘a cento, drawn from Katherine Mansfield’s letters to John Middleton Murry. Mansfield died from TB in 1923 at the age of 34’. The first line continues the title:

…it is a kind of intake of breath before I begin
as if I were writing to someone in the air —

I love the richness of the imagery in the next two couplets:

here, in two days, it is autumn
not late autumn, but bright gold everywhere

a real little salon with velvet covered furniture and an immense
dead clock and a gilt mirror and two very handsome crimson vases

And I really like that ‘immense / dead clock’, the surprise of it!

The epigraph to ‘Phthisis’ defines the word as ‘Tuberculosis, esp of the lungs’. The poem begins:

This is — what? A lisp, as if the tongue
has lost its nerve, grown to fill the mouth.

This is, perhaps, an ivied word
half in love with easeful…

The use of ellipsis is perfect here. And, ‘an ivied word’ — how lovely! Such a great lead-in to those italicised words from Keats, an intertextual treat sending me back through the years to his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, and the headiness of its beginning: ‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk’.

Enid Lee