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LONGING TO CONNECT


HARD WATER
by Jean Sprackland
[54pp, £8.00, Jonathan Cape]

In the review I recently wrote drawing attention to the work of W. D. Jackson I noted the impact on the Liverpool scene of a new generation of seriously committed poets ­ though it is in the circumstances fairer to talk now about a wider Merseyside scene. Among these poets I listed Jean Sprackland, about whose first collection, Tattoos for Mothers Day
, published by the Liverpool-based Spike Books in 1997 I wrote enthusiastically in Critical Survey

In Tattoos for Mothers Day
, I found a quiet, tender, exploratory voice ‘attempting to identify and sustain whatever integrities are needed for coping with, and sometimes preserving oneself from, the menaces that bear upon day-to-day living in an urban and domestic world of curries, deaths, onions, betrayals, supermarket shopping, fear, rubber gloves, cars... a fraught world littered with casualties, with hard questions, with grief, but one in which warmth, compassion and goodness are possible, indeed necessary if one is to continue.’ It was a good and strong collection, in which Sprackland had the courage to write with what Deryn Rees-Jones called ‘a tingling emotional honesty’‚ something obliging us to face up to our vulnerabilities. The book reminded me of the force of Douglas Dunn’s line ‘Look to the living, love them, and hold on.’ It was moving, compassionate and the poems were written with the freshness and precision of someone who had just come into their stride. Because the policy of Spike Books has (at least so far) been to publish first-volumes only, it was good to see Jean Sprackland taken up by Cape.

Hard Water
is full of very good things, qualities readers of her first collection will instantly recognise: the pains of growing up, modestly and poignantly made assertions of selfhood, sharply detailed observations of the domestic, the intricacies of relationships, a fascination with water and light, and with the furniture of urban life. They will also find here and there an impishly surreal take on things, as well as the inclusion of some historical perspectives. They will recognise a vision that combines an enviably childlike way of looking at the world with a self-protective shrewdness and canniness, someone trying to manoeuvre between tantalising dreams of perfection and the acceptance of mundane realities. The poems describe and define the places we are obliged to live. The feeling is of a poet who, having taken off with a good first collection, is ambitious to fly. But somehow I can’t escape the feeling (and I have read and re-read not wanting it to be so) that Hard Water, good though it is, may prove to be a transitional collection with the best yet to come. The quality of assurance we find in Tattoos isn’t quite as consistently evident; the marking out of territory not quite as single-minded; one or two poems don’t quite ‘arrive’ but rather leave us with question marks hanging in the air. (Is this what one reviewer meant by ‘an unspoken punchline that hits all the harder for its silence’?) Making a poem jump off the page and into your mind is a facility Sprackland has and she uses it marvellously. But once or twice in Hard Water it feels as though poems just suddenly stop and the leap’s not made. That said, we are still talking high quality stuff.

The collection’s title suggests something which on the face of it is a contradiction, a paradox. And paradox lies at the heart of the poems:

                  I’ll track the seabed, guided and saved by words,
                  by the unimportant and important things
                  people say to others like them
                  over unexplored and lethal distances.
                                    [from ‘Fibre Optics’]

Opposites treated to a kind of balancing act: the dead friend who comes to stay, big emptied-out shops with ‘huge windows still making desperate offers’, the redundant hangman who gets a job in Outdoor Pursuits, the past as something to extricate oneself from and the present still containing its secrets, the photograph of a shadow, the ‘cryonics centre‚ raided as if by animal-liberationists who then set the dead free to be dead, training a man as an apprentice to become the ideal husband and then setting him (or rather his hands) free, the man who throws frogs over the hedge and who, because they always return, is thought to be teaching them to fly.

Sex is a strong theme in the book and is sometimes wittily described in terms of wish-fulfilment, as in ‘Love-Song to a Parking Meter’:

                  Sometimes I wrap my arms around you,
                  bend close till my lips touch the cool of you.
                  I tell you how it is for me
                  here in this feverish city
                  under an unstable sky.
                  Your steady ticking is the only response I need.
                  Oh you are solidly mounted.
                  I rock against you, but you stand firm.

Or in ‘The Secret’:

                  I know a woman who has sex with men
                  then works magic which makes them forget.
                  It’s not me, I assure you.
                  It’s a friend who tells me everything.

                  The thrill of seduction, time and again,
                  whenever she wants it.

These quirkily humorous poems are part of Sprackland’s determination to find a kind of faith in ordinariness. It is where she has run up her flag. The title poem has her declaring affinities with Northernness, a wish to be associated with no-nonsense straightforwardness ­ something too easy to sentimentalise or adopt as an inverted sentimentalism. But sentimental is no word to use of Jean Sprackland’s poems. They are too honest, too straightforward for that, too much part of a proper belonging.

                  © Matt Simpson 203