Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

"Sleeping Keys" by Jean Sprackland (Cape, 2013)

The online magazine "Antiphon" is mentioned in the Acknowledgements! On pages 4 and 22 her lines go all higglety-pigglety for reasons I don't understand. For example, on p.4 there's "You can stay up all night with a house /as with a lover", the 2 lines right-aligned except that there's a space at the end of the first line. Go figure.

"It occurs to my mother that she might be dead" begins "She's been stripping beds". Stanza 2 begins

I tell her don't be silly of course she's not dead
and she says But how would I know?

I suggest she pinch herself, which I'm sure will settle it,
but she says That's for dreaming, not dead.
I don't think there's a test for dead.

The poem ends with "That must have been forty years ago ... And now/ I stand with my arms full of sheets, and suppose I'm alive". This works for me. It would have worked just as well without changing a word in a dinner-party anecdote or a story - which of course doesn't invalidate the poem. I like "The Aquarium" and "Aubergine" too. 6 poems each called "Letter Home" are spread through the book. I didn't really get them. "CCTV", "Clearing the drain" and "Two windows" seem lacking in substance (too obviously thematic?), and the title poem is not the best in the book. It says "there's a biscuit tin like this in every house". I'd add "and in a good many poems too". The keys inside are "decommissioned and sleeping", "inert and futureless", and of course some have associations going back many years, especially the one that locked the bathroom from within. Plot.

"Last resort", dealing with a mother's death, combines plot and language more fruitfully -

her breathing has become the measure of everything;
all human experience slips through the funnel of this sound.

All her days she has been open to breath,
but is closing now against its simple gifts.
Her lungs are drenched flat as the wings of the butterfly
I tried to rescue from the pool in summer

Several poems deal with house maintenance as metaphor. After mending the guttering

I live alone now, and things are simple.
This is the covenant:
I keep the ladder ready behind the shed,
and the storm is earthed.

What does that last line mean? Its electricity associations don't fit in with the poem. "The Fusebox" is another fixture that gets a metaphorical make-over, albeit more heavyhandedly - "I came here in times of crisis/ ... By thinning torchlight I contemplate/ the sequence of decisions, each of them binary,// and the black lever, whose heavy syllable/ will override them all". "Taking down the scaffolding" is an interesting companion piece to "Scaffold" (about erecting scaffold) by Hamish Whyte (from "Hannah, are you listening?")

Two stuntmen on a forty-foot tower
... They know the risks, how much they can subtract/ without collapse
... What love you need/ to dismantle the structure you're standing on!
Any scaffold's a dangerous/ construction.
... so practised they hook/ us like circus performers
... They've reached that pinnacle/ of art, making the difficult look/ easy-peasy

Her style's rather prolix, which doesn't help when she tries short parts or pieces. In

On the sunlit road by the wind farm
I watch the long limb of a turbine
throw down a blade of shadow
which scythes the cornfield over and over
with a sudden rumour of night

there's near-repetition, and details whose purpose is puzzling. Maybe it could have been "I watch the windmill's shadow scythe the cornfield ..."? Towards the end of the book the body becomes unreliable - "Shocking to learn the heart's element is not love/ but electricity". Is the first word meant to be a pun? The poem ends with " This heart is what I carry/. It's what carries me./ This twitching fist of gristle, the hurt machine,/ this rigged ship in a bottle." (p.47). The "lift" that she tries to inject into these (and other) final lines sometimes seems detached from the tone of the rest of the piece, obscure. The final poem, "Up", is a recapitulation (in 3-lined stanzas) of some of the book's themes - "It's the staircases I remember:/ the optimistic reach of them,/ the erotic promise/ ... When a house is built, this is a moment of vision:/ the installation of the staircase ... past ... the landing with its case of forgotten thrillers ... past the loft ... the risen heat, and the sun at the skylight/ dazzling me into/ a sudden forgetting of self".

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