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Sleeping Keys by Jean Sprackland – review


Sean O'Brien on a collection that offers the history of a marriage

In gothic literature, the house, or more likely the castle, is often viewed as a metaphor of the body. In her fourth collection, Sleeping Keys, Jean Sprackland takes a more ostensibly domestic but no less imaginative approach: here, houses comprise the location and the history of a marriage that is over and done, like the world in which the poet grew up. As is the way with the imagination, these premises may now be vacant, but they are by no means empty. "Home is so sad," wrote Philip Larkin, because it remembers us: "A joyous shot at how things ought to be, /Long fallen wide. You can see how it was: / Look at the pictures and the cutlery. / The music in the piano stool. That vase." Where Larkin offers an evocative snapshot, Sprackland maps every inch of the lost domain.

In this case, the house itself soon begins to offer a critique of its inhabitants: the early romantic comedy of an aquarium suddenly emptying itself on the carpet – "Ah! that's how they were / in those antediluvian days" – gives way to longer-term decay: "Tomorrow they would know the worst: / the ruined carpet, the marshy smell, /the brown seep through the bedroom ceiling." Sprackland is at her best when refusing the option of nostalgia. The pottery figures of a shepherdess and her swain on the mantelpiece are cheap knock-offs with badly painted features – "and look at the boy cross-eyed with lust / and the poor girl flushed and impatient, / the two of them trapped in this rictus of desire" – fit only to be smashed to pieces on the hearth. It's fascinating to compare this with Ciaran Carson's "Dresden", where idealism survives the accidental breaking of a figurine by the solitary Horse Boyle, perhaps because idealism is not confused with hope, serving instead as its own melancholy reward.

Sprackland can also deal very effectively with time which, in Larkin's words, "truly" is "our element" and yet impossible to access directly. "It Occurs to My Mother that She Might Be Dead" evokes a one-way labyrinth of habit, a lifetime spent in domestic drudgery. "How would I know? / I remember the glint in her voice as she said it, / the icy terror that seized me. And now / I stand with my arms full of sheets, and suppose I'm alive." The poem recreates that chill with the parched matter-of-factness of its conclusion, beyond which life seems, at least momentarily, unimaginable.

There are some less successful pieces in the book, and these seem bound up with its nature as a sequence – a form, like its vaguer cousins the series and the affiliated group – with a powerful contemporary attraction, offering something similar to a long poem, but without its longueurs. As the extended subject becomes a resource to be drawn on, supplying the next poem and the next, the particular life of the single poem can sometimes be subordinated to the larger project, which is, in turn, predicated on the idea of an outcome, of a point of completion, so that poems-in-themselves become the infantry of a campaign, or the eggs in the omelette.

Something of this kind appears to have happened with "Two Windows", which compares the distortion of light in a bedroom window's old glass during a couple's final row and, later, the different effect of a front-door pane. The first seems decisive in its exploding view, the second "more random: a mass / of membranes, trembling like frogspawn, / trying to net the day, unable to hold it." This should read as a discovery: if it doesn't, then perhaps at this stage the sequence knows too much about its own processes.

On the other hand, Sprackland is wittily alert to the process by which the world is pressed into the service of a poem. "Discovery" declares: "Now the rain / is stuck with her as if with some hopeless romantic / who keeps on making it stand for this or that / marvellous thing." Trying to see things for their own sake, the woman cuts an apple in half and her finger with it, and once more the apparatus of symbolism stands ticking over, awaiting admission to the house and the life.

If symbols and portents are unavoidable, why not deal with them as crisply as Sprackland does in "Sea Holly"? She brings a lover a bouquet of durable, unillusioned flowers that thrive on salt and whose "head of sweetness wears a steel collar, / a star of bracts sharp enough to draw blood." Naturally, having said this, she goes on into a triumph of adult mixed feelings: "I stood in the street, spiked with all my warnings. / And he opened the door, and the flowers and I went in."

The management of tone, as so often in this book, is assured and tactful. The indrawn breath of risk, the determination to act, and Sprackland's humanising sense of comedy are all present. Just as the effort to see things squarely does not deny feeling, so the life of feeling is not sought as an end in itself, but in concert with good sense and perspective. This is surely a wise aspiration. Sleeping Keys is a book distinguished by rueful but unembittered wisdom.

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