- Derek Adams
Jean Sprackland was born and brought up in Burton-on-Trent and lived for many years in Southport, Merseyside.
She studied English and Philosophy at the University of Kent at Canterbury, then taught for a few years before beginning to write poetry at the age of 30. She has held residencies in schools and universities, and is a tutor for the Arvon Foundation. She also works in education, training and consultancy for organizations including the Poetry Society and the Poetry Archive. In 2004 she was one of the judges of the Arvon International Poetry Competition.
Her first poetry collection was Tattoos for Mothers Day (1997), which was shortlisted for the 1998 Forward Poetry Prize (Best First Collection), and her second collection, Hard Water (2003), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, was shortlisted for the 2003 T. S. Eliot Prize and the Whitbread Poetry Award. It includes a sequence of poems, 'No Man’s Land', which is the result of a collaboration with photographer David Walker involving the East Lancashire Road which links Liverpool and Manchester.
In 2004 Jean Sprackland was named by the Poetry Book Society as one of the ‘Next Generation’ poets. With Mandy Coe, she wrote Our Thoughts are Bees: Working with Writers and Schools (2005). Her third collection of poetry is Tilt (2007), winner of the 2007 Costa Poetry Award.
In 2012 her book, Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach was published - a series of meditations on walking the beaches between Blackpool and Liverpool.
Jean Sprackland is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, and a trustee of the Poetry Archive. She lives in London.
In Jean Sprackland’s luminous poem ‘The Light Collector’, there is a man who ‘knows he has a steady way with starlight, / can pick it up like sand on a fingertip’.
His obsessive search for ‘more secretive sources’ brings him eventually into ‘the dark kitchen’, where he opens the fridge, ‘and the light is so sweet and precise it leaves him aching’. This is a quietly mysterious poem, ending with an odd poignancy, and firmly within the domestic setting. As such, it could be seen as somewhat emblematic of her work, which shifts perceptions by continually juxtaposing the surprising and the visionary against the familiar and everyday. Thus, she can write a woman’s love-song to a parking meter, and in praise of caravans. Equally, in ‘The Mission’, she imagines the horror of waking up in the distant future: ‘everyone you know is gone, / … your neighbourhood erased, / every detail unimaginably different’. More joyously, she describes ‘Walking on the Ceiling’, ‘Translating Birdsong’, and finds, behind ‘dead tower blocks squatted by gulls’, a night sky of ‘buoys and lighthouses, / its flares and shipping lanes’ (‘Notes from the Outside’).
As these extracts indicate, Sprackland’s extraordinary imagination is always grounded in ordinary human emotions and settings. She has been part of the recent ‘New Generation Poets’ promotion by the Poetry Society, but in fact is already mature, having developed her work carefully over the years. Among the admirers of her two collections Tatoos for Mothers Day (1997) and Hard Water (2003) are Vicki Feaver and Carol Ann Duffy, with whom her work has some thematic affinities. The latter comes to mind in the satirically erotic ‘Dreaming of Rubber Gloves’, in which a woman fantasizes about shopping for some ‘cut on the bias, others / ruffled at the wrist, one pair / lustrous like the heart of a shell’. Later, ‘when the mood was right, you’d put them on / to delight him, and as you stood in the steam / he might come up close behind you’. Sprackland’s poems are full of erotic fantasy and energy, though again, usually humorously rooted in everyday settings, such as a supermarket. ‘In fruit and veg we’re kissing / … Onions roll crackling from my grasp / as I pull you blindly towards me’ (‘Action Replay’). ‘Sleep’ moves from an image of a dozing infant son, ‘a thread of raspberry sauce / at the corner of his mouth’, to specifically sexual feelings, ‘your own warm hand between your thighs’. Most ambiguously of all, in ‘The Secret’, a woman picks up a succession of men: ‘It’s safe to be animal with them. She slicks herself on their mouths’. Her trick is that she uses ‘magic’ to make them forget all about it afterwards. ‘I can see by your face you think it’s me’, it concludes, ‘No. She’s a good friend. / Now let’s talk about you’.
The joys and traumas of childhood, relationships between parents and children, are also a rich source for her. Again, she works unusual angles on the familiar. ‘Learning to Love Money’ has a child who sucks coins from a church collection, to taste ‘the flavour / of other people’s lives, lived somewhere else / in unimaginable ways’. She reverses perceptions of childish behaviour, by recalling ‘My Father, 62’, celebrating his retirement by rolling down a hill ‘like a boy of ten’. She has any number of poems in which school is a place of tension for sensitive children, where ‘the boys laugh, the girls scuttle and whisper’, and a teacher can even be violently assaulted by a pupil: ‘He’s clutching a handful of my hair / like a trophy’ (‘Joe’). A child’s curiosity about life and death is explored during a number of poems about seaside excursions on family holidays, and in ‘The Currency of Jellyfish’, this is imbued with a strange religious dimension, as a child is given ‘sixpence a bucketful’ to clear up an influx of dead beached creatures. ‘I angled the spade and slid one / like a dead sailor off a plank. / I am the resurrection and the life saith the Lord’. And in ‘Shocks’, death comes unexpectedly close on a bicycle ride with her best friend, ‘next door Julie’. After crossing a dual carriageway, ‘like small determined animals swimming against a swollen river’, the friends play a game of dare next to an electric fence: ‘I thought I could hear the current / singing in the cable. I reached out’.
Introducing her most recent collection Hard Water in the Poetry Book Society Bulletin, Sprackland remarked that ‘water has leaked into many of the poems’. Indeed, the opening poem is about the water in the place she grew up in, Burton-on-Trent, a long-established brewing town in the Midlands. What she does is to connect the water to her feeling for the place, and its particular local speech. This water is ‘Flat. Straight. Like the vowels, / like the straight talk: hey up me duck’. She recalls turning up her face to the rain, letting it ‘scald my eyelids and lips’ with its ‘payload of acid’. For her, it has ‘the true taste / of early mornings, the blunt taste / of don’t get mardy, of too bloody deep for me’. People and places are a conspicuous theme throughout the book, which concludes with ‘No Man’s Land’, a sequence of poems that arose out of photographs of the central reservation of the road between Liverpool and Manchester. In one, a man has to ‘walk this tightrope of tarmac’ every day, then go home to his nagging wife: ‘The endless falling cadence of the traffic / swells inside my head and drowns her out’. In another, a driver watches ‘the dark melting down the glass’, and remembers that ‘There’s no one waiting for me at home’. As Sprackland has said, the photographs ‘drew from me the voices of the people so absent and ghostly’.
A ghostly voice is also created in one of her most quietly moving poems, ‘An Old Friend Comes to Stay’. Its subject is the return of a friend from the dead, but its light-hearted tone is anything but elegiac. More striking than the poetic idea, however, is the beautiful way that it lightly suggests the proximity of the physical and the metaphysical, this world and the next. After a telephone call, the narrator says, ‘I’d forgotten the precise smoky register / of her voice, how close it is to jazz’. They go to a bar, where her friend is already chatting up a musician. ‘She’s telling him she’s spent five years as pure spirit, / she’s missed the pleasures of the flesh’. She leaves her there, to ‘get off home’, but will ‘leave the door on the latch’. In conclusion, a phrase that comes to mind about the spirit of Jean Sprackland’s work is one that she herself has used to describe her feelings about her own home town: ‘passionate ambivalence’. It is surely appropriate. But, in the title poem of Hard Water, she is at last able to identify herself fully with the ‘fierce lovely water that marked me for life / as belonging, regardless’.
Dr Jules Smith, 2005