Monday, 26 May 2014

Obsolete Treasure: some notes on Jean Sprackland’s ‘Sleeping Keys’


Sleeping Keys


Printed with old roses or tartan and thistle,
there’s a biscuit tin like this in every house.
Prise off the lid and catch the flinty scent
of old keys, decommissioned and sleeping.

Like unspent francs, deutschmarks and drachmas
they accumulate here, inert and futureless,
though each in its time was powerful:
precision-cut on a wheel of sparks.

Tip them out on the table in the empty kitchen
and rake through them one last time.
The mortice for the first front door,
the yale for the porch, replaced ten years ago
(never a good copy, it balked at the turn).

These antiques were for internal doors,
this one perhaps the old bathroom where
he knocked softly, and you stepped out of the bath
and printed the bare boards with your feet
as you hurried to unlock and let him in.

Padlock keys for sheds and bikes, and a set
with a jaunty tag for the house next door, though
the people are different now and you can’t imagine
popping round and watering the plants.

Count out their obsolete treasure on the table,
puzzling as your grandmother’s brooches and hatpins
and with the same residual gravity –
the shiny, the worn, the ones threaded
on string or paperclips, or marked with Tipp-Ex,
the miniatures for medicine cabinets and pianos –

then scoop the lot into the bin, because
not one will ever spring a lock again
to let him into your space, or you to his.
No more the easy click of the blade engaging
and nudging the bolt aside, or his grin as he entered
the room of steam, already slipping off his shirt.


(from Sleeping Keys, 2013)


This, the title-poem from her third full collection, exemplifies Jean Sprackland's lucid, well-honed and almost conversational narrative style, similar in tone to that of her near-contemporaries Sarah Maguire and Paul Farley and her exact contemporary Kathleen Jamie, about whom I've written previously.  Like those fine poets, Sprackland has the ability to find poetry in unexpected places; and, in her 2012 book Strands, a journal of a year of finding miscellany on Ainsdale sands, joined the ranks of Jamie and Farley as poets who also write brilliant prose. Happily, though, poetry remains her first and foremost gift.

Sprackland cleverly builds this poem through a near-forensic look at its titular items, which act metaphorically to remember, but simultaneously move on from, a loving relationship which has ended. The opening couplet overtly alerts the reader to the (particularly British) universality of her theme: ‘there’s a biscuit tin like this in every house’. The next then draws the reader in further through subtle deployment of the imperative – ‘Prise off the lid and catch the flinty scent’ – and the absolutely spot-on choice of the adjective ‘flinty’, before Sprackland leaves us in no doubt that what will be threaded through the poem is a sense of superfluity. The word ‘decommissioned’, with its industrial connotations of mines or nuclear reactors being closed down, is such an especially well-chosen one here. The simile in the second stanza continues that theme of redundancy and adds to the ‘flinty’, metallic smell, like that left by coins which have nestled in the palm of your hand. As ever with Sprackland, each of her words – noun, verb and adjective – does its job; that ‘precision-cut’ alliterating beautifully with the preceding ‘Printed’ and ‘Prise’.

Stanza 3 employs the imperative again, engaging the reader as if s/he is doing the tipping-out and sorting. At this point, ‘one last time’ unambiguously indicates that the action within the poem represents a clean break with the past and, more precisely, with a long-lasting cohabitative relationship. The faults in that relationship are retrospectively pointed out through that telling phrase ‘it balked at the turn’, as if the early excitement had, over time, faded and been replaced by the imperfections to which lovers can for so long be blinded until the point that they start to matter.

With exquisite timing, the fourth stanza introduces the reality of that excitement; the sensual and sexual intimacy of ‘the old bathroom where / he knocked softly, and you stepped out of the bath / and printed the bare boards with your feet / as you hurried to unlock and let him in’, the jinks of the incident recalled with a yearning freshness, hinting at what might have been had the lovers managed to sustain that headiness throughout their relationship. The relaxed but regretful, happy/sad voice is maintained in the next stanza, with a succession of ‘p’ words, and which culminates in a wider sense of time having passed one by: ‘the people are different now and you can’t imagine / popping round and watering the plants’. Time moves ever onwards, the poem implies, and one has to move forward with it.

A further steady accumulation of detailed focus on the oxymoronic ‘obsolete treasure’ draws the poem towards its close: the harking back to ‘your grandmother’s brooches and hatpins’ which contain ‘the same residual gravity’. Sprackland’s use of ‘gravity’ – with its various meanings of attraction, seriousness, weightiness and importance – is characteristically precise and excellent, and leads wonderfully to the exactitude that follows: ‘the shiny, the worn, the ones threaded / on string or paperclips, or marked with Tipp-Ex, / the miniatures for medicine cabinets and pianos’. The just-so-ness of that list, the pleasure taken in describing old items with a nostalgic delight that the Japanese would call wabi sabi, would resonate in many households in Britain, and no doubt beyond.

And so the last exhorting imperative of the poem, ‘scoop the lot into the bin’, arrives with a finality that seemingly dispels any sense of sentimental longing for the relationship that has ended – ‘not one will ever spring a lock again / to let him into your space, or you to his’ – before being undercut by the double-edged pleasurable pathos of the word-perfect tercet that closes this tremendous poem.

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