thirteen: Jean Sprackland, Tilt

The remaining lot of books in my as yet unread poetry pile are all authored by men, so I decided that I should break my own rule (no buying new poetry until all the stuff on my shelves is read) in order to even it up a bit; not positive discrimination as much as wanting to try to keep my reading from getting too narrow. That said it’d be interesting to have a think about maleness and femaleness in contemporary (and other) poetry…

I have to confess I hadn’t heard of Jean Sprackland until I came across Tilt in the Covent Garden branch of Waterstones, with no other agenda than I wanted something by someone female, and I bought it mostly for its beautiful title (helped along by the fact that it was winner of the Costa Poetry Award last year). It’s her third collection and she’s highly rated by the Poetry Book Society, so I should probably have come across her before.

Although I admired how technically accomplished the collection was, not a lot of it really stopped me in my tracks or resonated with me hugely. I think I still find free verse quite hard to get along with; I almost need some structure, no matter how light or how far it’s been pushed, or else a real rhythm to follow. Without it I’m left a little cold I think, and this is where my poetry primers should probably come in… or perhaps just more, and wider, reading. Or maybe it’s just taste? I can’t expect to like everything I read; it’s just that I worry when I feel I don’t ‘get’ it – especially when it’s won (big) prizes.

That said I found much of the writing compelling, and was struck by ‘Birthday Poem’, ‘Barn Owl’, ‘Alarm’, ‘Dried Fish’, ‘The Stopped Train’, ‘Bracken’, ‘You’ and ‘The Engine’.

The two that really knocked me over, though, were ‘Spilt’ – utterly heart-wrenching – and ‘The Way Down’, which felt so of the moment in my life right now that it felt like a letter written to me:

Forget the path.
Hack through gorse and blackthorn
and walk into the stream.

The thing about a stream is
it knows where it’s going, has a gift
for finding the shortest route.

A path can lose its nerve,
peter out into bog or bracken, divide
inscrutably in two. I’ve stood at that place

and weighed the choices, weighed
and checked again, while mist crawls
over the mountain like sleep.

When the stream divides
both streamlets are equally sure.
Each plays its own game – the slick of moss,

the sudden race over a sill of rock –
and each, if you let it,
will carry you down.

Tilt, Jean Sprackland (Jonathan Cape, 2007, winner of the 2007 Costa Poetry Award)

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