Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Jean Sprackland: At Night in the House

At night in the house
     a river runs through her

                              carrying its burdens
the golden barges         the dead griefs and the quick fishes

                                     She lies alone
                                wet at the mouth
                                     and between the legs

and it runs not always placid
                   sometimes angry
                                        rough as old rope

dragging its way
                          between the receding banks
              the old wharves worn smooth
                          by all the moorings made there

the scrolled barges
with their forgotten cargoes
of sugar     tobacco     raw silk

                         and the illicit little night boats
                               tied up swiftly
                      while the moon was behind a cloud

                         the twelve slithery steps
                              cut into the dripping wall

When the river is running hard
                she speaks only its own tongue
                         not the dry-docked language
                                   of other people

                and in places
                   the trees lean in
                        like conspirators
                             and the water is smeared
               with whispers

                             and in places
                                  the bank
                                              melts into the water
                                                       roots and all
                                                       roots and all
                                   even an unlucky heifer
                                          risking the edge for a drink

In the night house
               she is nothing but riverbanks
                             all she can feel is river
                     drawn through her
                                               like a green rope

                      scouring the banks
                                                   with restlessness
           towards open sea
                        taking its freight
                                  of corpses
               and drowned silverware.

Copyright Jean Sprackland -  'At Night in the House',
from Sleeping Keys 
Jonathan Cape
With Permission

Sleeping Keys is a very accomplished collection from a poet who won the Costa Award for poetry a few years ago with her first collection 'Tilt’.  Jean Sprackland is also one of the few poets in the UK to be published by a major international publisher.  Jean is not yet a household name, though she should be.  Her poetry is not only accessible but rich in imagery and resonance, revealing deeper layers at second and third readings.  Jean is currently Reader in Poetry at Manchester University and a trustee of the National Poetry Archive.  Her books have been shortlisted for all the major poetry awards including the TS Eliot Prize.  Her meditation on walking the shoreline, 'Strands', won the Portico Prize for non-fiction.

‘Sleeping Keys’ is on the surface about houses, lived in, abandoned, dreamt of, but also about our ideas of home and belonging.  It’s about locking and unlocking - private and public space.

Doorways are liminal, transitional spaces and have been done to death in poetic metaphor.  But they only hover in the subconscious here.  It's the keys that are central - lost, found, collected, at the centre of family dramas -

‘First week in the new house and a muddle over keys.
She’s back from somewhere with her daughter in her arms,
three months old, electric with hunger.
It’s dark and she can’t raise her neighbour.’

The title poem brings back all sorts of memories.  I still have a tin box in the house, full of keys that might just possibly fit some forgotten lock or other and which I (quite inexplicably) can’t bring myself to throw away.

‘Painted with old roses or tartan and thistle
there’s a biscuit tin like this in every house.’

It's full of keys 'decommissioned and sleeping'.  But there are clues in the poem that more has gone into the past than obsolete keys in unusual locks.
‘Not one will ever spring a lock again
to let him into your space, or yours to him.’

And there is one key that offers admission to

‘A house you will never enter
nor haunt after your death
rooms full only of themselves’

Empty rooms fading ‘to a tinnitus of dust and dead wasps’.

One of my favourite poems is ‘Moving the Piano’ - I’ve had to scrap two old pianos in my life, each with its ‘grubby mouthful of elephant’ and I can still remember the effort, the noise, the smell . . .

‘The frame looked quaint as a spinning jenny.
It stank of old felt and lamentations.’

‘At Night in the House’ grabbed my attention because my home in England is on the banks of a big, wild river and the sound of it permeates my days and particularly the nights.  And the sound of it is something like a thread of memory bringing ‘the golden barges   the dead griefs   and the quick fishes’. In the poem this river is a metaphor for something else - solitariness, reflection, the freight of a life lived, ‘the old wharves won smooth/ by all the moorings made there’, those barges, ‘with their forgotten cargoes’.

The river is a life-force, sometimes angry, sometimes placid, both erotic and disturbing, but always powerful, a source of creativity and passion.  I know very well the ‘twelve slithery steps/cut into the dripping wall’ and the trees that ‘lean in/like conspirators’.   And I have lain in bed, awake, in the darkness of 3am and felt this . . .

‘In the night house
       she is nothing but riverbanks
               all she can feel is river
                     drawn through her
                                like a green rope.

Copyright Kathleen Jones and Jean Sprackland

Kathleen Jones is an English poet, biographer and novelist living in Italy.  Her first full collection 'Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21' was published by Templar in 2011.  She blogs at 'A Writer's Life' and has a website at www.kathleenjones.co.uk

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Mary Mac said...

What an extraordinary poem and what sounds like an extraordinary collection! I have been so busy of late with other people's poems as a publisher that I forget to write myself. Some poems shove you right back to that particular riverbank... thank you Kathleen, and thank you for what you say here, too, oh woman of the river. Simply wonderful.

Helen Lowe said...


Janis said...

This is great! Thanks for introducing me to this poet.

Kathleen Jones said...

The fantastic thing is that her collection is available on Kindle or I-pad for a very reasonable price - you don't have to wait for post and pay the extra postage!

Keith Westwater said...

Brilliant! Thanks Kathy and Jean.