I've said it before I think, if I am reading a poetry collection I will be gone some time. In the case of Sleeping Keys by Jean Sprackland it has taken me from August 2013 through to last week to read and inwardly digest about forty poems.
Last summer I had a complete rethink about how I would read poetry, starting with Her Birth by Rebecca Goss. For a start no more underlining or marginalia. It is an ingrained habit born of study and exams, no longer required but one that had stuck, and the easiest way to ruin a collection forever if I want to keep coming back to it, and re-reading and finding new layers that I might have missed before. I no longer wanted to be assailed by my own assertive first opinions, interpretations that might close doors on that subsequent visit.
...and what a huge success it has been. I allow a seperate page for each poem, scribble down a few thoughts, read it again a few days later...look at those first thoughts and see that I have read it entirely differently, so I add those second and third thoughts to the page. None of it will make much sense to anyone else, but reading back it all makes perfect sense to me...
Now that I have finished Sleeping Keys I am pleased with the other half of my decision too.
No more butterfly flitting from one poet to the next...few here, few there...I would stay with one collection and read it start to finish, really get to know the poet's voice, and I would take my time over it. Interestingly the strategy was put to the test when Michael Symmonds Roberts won the Forward Prize for Drysalter. Oh that looks interesting, just one or two I thought.. but it was no good, I was far too in tune with Jean Sprackland and I headed back to Sleeping Keys. Drysalter's moment will come.
I don't think I can better the publisher's introduction to Sleeping Keys by way of explaining the collection...
Jean Sprackland looks back at endings and beginnings: the end of a life, or of a marriage; old homes lived in and left, new homes discovered. There are poems that speak of the paralysis and bewilderment of knowing something is over, and of the strangely significant, almost votive nature of the things that are left behind: the biscuit tin 'of old keys, decommissioned and sleeping', the empty room fading 'to a tinnitus of dust and dead wasps'.
This is a book of transitions — domestic and emotional — and it explores how the experience of change is painful, disorientating, even catastrophic, but also profoundly necessary and revelatory. Change brings with it the hope that love can be recovered out of the ruins; change, in fact, is a creative, healing force that shows us we have been living among ruins — that even in the face of grief and loss there are 'spectral futures / we must stride the ditch to reach'.
Full of exact, vivid, clear-eyed observation of a world of failure and flux, Sleeping Keys also illuminates a future world beyond. For every object left emptied of significance, bereft, Jean Sprackland shows us another that is charged and radiant with possibility — the possibility of miracles.
Now in the past I might have read that and thought do me a favour... bet I don't see anything like, and the fault would have been all mine. Rushed reading, distractions of work and life getting in the way and it might all pass me by.
The collection begins with Opening a Chimney...
...lets in the world.
It was a stopped throat
but now voices travel through it..
and the significance of those opening words were not lost on me. The way that a chimney amplifies sound, bringing what is with-out within and a perfect poem to open the voices in the book.
Those voices emanate from everywhere as Jean Sprackland draws attention to the everyday, the unobtrusive things so easily taken for granted, making disparate connections that resonated constantly in my mind.
The all-seeing gaze of the CCTV cameras. the Recording Angels likened to birds of prey with their equally all-seeing gaze, and I was immediately reminded of Ted Hughes's peom Hawk in the Rain, the bird's eye view that misses nothing.
Poems arced and sparked across each other rewarding this one-collection-one-voice approach, 'Clearing the Drains' connected with 'Opening a Chimney' for its analogies of shifting blockages and gaining new understandings.
I always remember hearing a Reasonably Well-Known Poet at a literary event, pouring derision and scorn on a reader (not present) who had invested one of his poems with meanings many miles from the base camp at which he had written it... and I thought, that's your lot mate, and I haven't read a word he has written since. A poem comes to me as a gift, and it is mine to read as I wish, and I feel sure much can and will emerge from Sleeping Keys for every reader, different and all dependent upon own life experiences and mood....and each reader's own personal reminders.
I'm going to stay with Jean Sprackland's voice for this week, in that way I often do, where one thing leads to another and reminds me of something else, so expect a gallimaufry week (more so than usual) and if you think poetry may not be for you, or perhaps you feel a bit out of step with it and can't think how or where to begin again (I realised I was very out of practice) then Sleeping Keys might be the way back in.
It is the stuff of the everyday layered with what lies beneath, and though I don't want to teach anyone to suck eggs here's what has worked for me..
Read one poem, read the top layer...read it again a day or so later, scratch the surface, dive into the cracks and see another world.
Keep the notebook (good excuse for new notebook) alongside the collection, title of the poem at the top with page number, and some of my notes are just a list of single words that sprung to mind.
Read those notes again and make some more, and slowly the connections are made, a current really does oscillate though this collection and when read in this way I couldn't help but feel it. Revisiting the notes has been a joy.
So coming up this week ...the piano, the messy drawer in the kitchen, the fuseboard...oh God...the fuseboard, palpitations and who knows what else.