Sleeping Keys is Jean Sprackland’s third poetry collection. It was published in September of last year, following on from her 2007 Costa Poetry Award winning Tilt. Sleeping Keys “looks back at endings and beginnings” – taking its title from one of the poems that epitomises Londoner Sprackland’s chosen themes. The “obsolete treasure[s]” that are “decommissioned and sleeping” once had purpose, and cause the poet and the reader to reflect, the verse inducing memories of old love and old friends. Yet there is a hopeful undertone, as Sprackland portrays a sense of renewal mixed through that loss. This juxtaposition of conflicting emotions, old and new, lost and found, past and future, permeates Sleeping Keys. As Kate Kellaway commented in The Observer, in Sprackland’s work “the mundane is transformed but never falsified”. Sprackland not only writes of life changing circumstances but also cogitates on the everyday, even mundane events and objects. In doing so, she highlights aspects of life most of us do not consider.
‘Taking Down The Scaffolding’ is a prime example. As she does so often in the collection, Sprackland finds the extraordinary in the ordinary. She highlights the unusual ease with which the men confront their workaday perils:
They sing and banter, though one slip
could kill them both[…]
The reality of such a common occurrence’s inherent risks becomes clear, and Sprackland transforms the familiar worker into a brave and trusting individual. She simultaneously opens an entirely new level of respect for them in the reader as she continues,
[…] What love you need
to dismantle the structure you’re standing on!
The free verse of Sleeping Keys fits the open and ultimately positive nature of the collection, the form reflecting the unpredictable and ungrounded state of life. Perhaps the most striking representation of reality understood through form is seen in ‘At Night In The House’ where Sprackland uses the whole space of the double page layout. This poem in particular stands out for its avant-garde, stylised form, reminiscent of contemporary landscape poetry. Not all of the poems in Sleeping Keys are so extreme in their use of free verse, however – in most of the works, Sprackland has taken a simpler, yet no less effective approach.
Each poem is in itself a successful, self-contained miniature narrative, yet read collectively, they each take on extra meaning. It is possibly clichéd to assume a poet’s work is autobiographical, but here each poem reads like a chapter in Sprackland’s life, and the entire collection forms a progressive narrative. We follow her through the loss of her mother, the breakdown of her relationship and into a new beginning. Sprackland does not examine these circumstances in detail yet she draws us in, playing with our emotions. The final poem, ‘Up’ epitomises her optimism:
Where I am now, I climb – I climb –
this new love is a tall place to live.
Even in the darkest of moments, Sprackland presents us with hope. In ‘Last Resort’, she talks of her dying mother, yet that part of the narrative is less than half of the poem – the rest focuses on the kindness of humanity, the “good man” who retrieved the “Vancomycin” medication, the last resort. Sprackland writes:
[…] Nothing in it for him –
just the walk and the heat, the letter in his pocket
and the restless, living earth where he knelt.
This positive vision of humanity is exactly what makes Sleeping Keys such a wonderful read.