Jean Sprackland's poems are an uncommon pleasure to read. They are defined by their hospitable grace. They're easy to take in yet anything but superficial: they repay return visits. Sprackland has been highly regarded from the start of her career perhaps because she makes the reader welcome – the clarity is a tonic. In 1998 was shortlisted for the Forward prize for her first book and then for the TS Eliot and Whitbread prizes for her second. She won the 2007 Costa poetry award for her third collection, Tilt, and on the strength of this, her fourth, she deserves to become a household name – not least because her work is rooted in ideas about home.
Sprackland writes about how we inhabit our lives, and describes an ambivalent relationship with domesticity. There are poems about unblocking drains, about cupboards that stubbornly refuse to clear themselves of the past, and about the slicing of bread and apples. And there is "Opening a Chimney", a delicately judged poem about finding her voice again, a new broom with which to sweep clean. Once her chimney, which has been like "a stopped throat", is open, the outside world is allowed in: "Now something falls, soft as a thought – / a clod of soot, or the bones of an old nest – / and the dreaming house stirs." Sprackland is also stirring – it's a time of change. The mundane is transformed but never falsified, and she writes in a way that would not disgrace Virginia Woolf, quoted in the frontispiece.
The collection begins with the end of a marriage (much furniture removal, including a piano: "The frame looked quaint as a spinning jenny./ It stank of old felt and lamentations") and ends with new love ("Sea Holly" is a beautiful, guarded poem in which she offers an unconventional bouquet: "I stood in the street, spiked with all my warnings/ And he opened the door, and the flowers and I went in."). Here, as always, she treads lightly, is not clunkily autobiographical.
Sprackland is at pains not to force things to be more than they are, and there is discipline in making herself scarce. So in "Discovery" she writes: "The apple she took from the bowl and cut in half/ has a name, and a green skin flushed with red./ No need to think of temptation, original sin, etc./ It's just an apple, and she would ask nothing of it/ except for sweetness…" But then she cuts herself by accident with a knife and a chance symbolism emerges: "the welling blood, the apple halved and glistening./ Autumn, the quiet house, the marriage done." In "The Birds of the Air", similarly, she is content to be vague about the birds' names to "keep them free". The determination not to appropriate or overdress what she sees persists – she is more a witness than a manager.
Sprackland's poetry is a perfect companion piece to that of Philip Larkin, to whom her work is indebted. One cannot read her without thinking of his "Home is So Sad" and "Days". "We Come Back to This" – a wonderful poem – seems at first to be on a Larkinesque path. Her question "Where else to return but here" echoes Larkin's "Where can we live but days?" But he is brilliantly depressing: "Home is so sad. It stays as it was left./ Shaped to the comfort of the last to go/ As if to win them back… " Sprackland's house, by contrast, is less servile, more enticing, less of a frump: "You can stay up all night with a house as with a lover…" And yet it's her last lines that are most satisfying, with the sudden inspiration of giving a house its liberty (not so different from her approach to birds and apples). The house is unburdened by association with "rooms full only of themselves".
the tremulous mantra of pigeons,
and the chatter of night trains.
Now the closed room is elemental.
Still air quivers with freshness.
The wind makes skittering incursions,
throws down hailstones
racketing into the grate
accurate as coins in a chute.
For years it was shut and intimate.
It forgot the outdoor sounds,
the smell of sky.
Now something falls, soft as a thought –
a clod of soot, or the bones of an old nest –
and the dreaming house stirs.