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Green Noise and Gravestones: A reading of poetry and prose

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By Grace Atkinson

Manchester Metropolitan University’s RAH! programme presented ‘Green Noise and Gravestones’ this week, a reading of poetry and prose hosted by poet and Manchester Met professor Jean Sprackland.

The evening was introduced by Manchester Met’s Pro Vice Chancellor for Education, Professor Helen Laville. Laville said, “Jean’s inaugural lecture today draws upon two of her new works, These Silent Mansions, a collection of essays about graveyards, and Green Noise a new collection of poetry.”

Sprackland then took the stage warmly welcoming the audience. She said, “I just want to say, how wonderful and amazing it is to have such a rich mix of family, friends, colleagues, and people I’ve never even met here today.” She continued, “Adam did suggest that this might be like having the privilege of attending my own funeral”, referring to fellow Manchester Met colleague and writer, Adam O’Riordan.

Sprackland began by explaining how both new books work in parallel with each other. She said: “These two new books are more like siblings they’re very close, they have a lot in common. Both are concerned, in different ways, with these huge things of place, memory, the nature if time and loss.”

Sprackland went on to explain the title of her new poetry collection, Green Noise, saying:

“Green noise is the mid-point of the white noise spectrum, and it’s sometimes described as the background noise if the world. The poems in this new collection listen for what is audible and available to be known and understood, and what is not.”

“Some [of the poems] enquire into the natural world, and our human place in it, by investigating hidden worlds within worlds: oak apples, aphid farms, firewood teeming with small life. Others go in search of fragments of a mythic and often brutal past: the lost haunts of childhood, abandoned villages, scraps of shared history which are only ever partially remembered.

“A physical relic, or a mark on the landscape, seems briefly to offer a portal, where a sounding can be sent from present, to past, to back again. I have felt as I wrote, that each poem is an attempt at location, in time, in place, or in language.”

Sprackland added: “If there really is a background noise of the world, its never more audible, I feel, than in spring.”

Green Noise includes poems that speak of a violent and industrial nature, and the role of human civilisation within it. ‘April’, a kind of anti-pastoral poem, was ‘written in a year where winter had a very long tail, and spring came very late and suddenly, like a kind of explosion’, and speaks of ‘city gutters clogged with blossom, muddy ponds spuming with cannibal tadpoles’.

In ‘Another Swimming Poem’, Sprackland dips herself into a river scarred by human activity, ‘a brown gash in the field’s fabric, froth of petra-chemicals, stink of the city’s ratty underwear, strewn under the open sky’.

The notion of childhood is presented with both a touching nostalgia and a sense of cruel illumination. In ‘Crystallography’ Sprackland describes her older brother as he grows coloured crystals in vinegar: ‘I recall him now, bent to his task, he was growing so tall these days’. She said, “I think childhood has its own supply of cruelty and fears”. Sprackland went on to read ‘Dumb Animals’, which recalls how her and her classmates would use hockey sticks to bat the school guinea pig out from under the PE shed: ‘I remember the feel of the rubbery grip […] how desperately I longed to be the one to bring him out into the light’.

Sprackland’s poems had the power to send a reader into both a dystopian future, where nature and machines appear almost one entity, and to the past, and to each private childhood.

Next, Sprackland read from her book of prose, saying: ‘‘These Silent Mansions arise from a lifetime of exploring churchyards and cemeteries. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always been to visit the graveyard. They’re places which are very rich in history, and also rich in biodiversity, and this book took me back into my own past, to some of the town and villages where I’ve lived in childhood and throughput my adult life.”

These Silent Mansions seemed almost a form of memorial to Sprackland: “An attempt to reconstruct or, in come cases, construct for the first time, the stories of forgotten individuals. This is not about famous graves, the celebrated dead, this is about the forgotten, the ordinary.”

She added, “I was also exploring, more generally, what graveyards can mean to the places where they are situated or where those people lived and died, and to their relationship with the living.”

These excerpts spoke of tree matriarchs, worlds within worlds, the decapitated statues of angels, and slow worms, who are “defined by what they are not”, while at the same time can “redefine themselves, make their escape by casting off the tail then leaving it thrashing in the dust, as a decoy for the crow or the magpie”. In these short meditations, the world is slowed down, and becomes sharp in Sprackland’s vivid imagery.

The evening ended with a response from James Sheard, author of the collection Scattering Eva (2015) and The Abandoned Settlements (2017). Sheard said, “[Sprackland] is, as we have heard this evening, a marvellous describer of place, but it is not just that she conjures up her places and events and memories with a forensic eye, and a language to match, […] but, over and over again in her work, she then gives us meaning and understanding which are particular and striking.”

“Having placed us in her territory, she feels free to mess with us, with our visions, our perspective, our sense of where, exactly, we are. I’ve often thought that Jean would make a remarkable film director; she has a particular ability to shift our vision, to play with perspective and focal depth. She often pulls back dizzyingly to show us the history or truth of where we are, or makes us suddenly focus on the thing in the shadows which we didn’t quite know was there.”

Sprackland’s first poetry collection, Tattoos For Mothers, was published in 1997. Others include Hard Water (Cape, 2003), Tilt (Cape, 2007), and Sleeping Keys (Random House, 2013). Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Forward Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize and was awarded the costa Prize in 2007 for Tilt. She has also published Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach (Cape, 2012), a collection of meditations written while walking the beaches between Blackpool and Liverpool.

Look out for forthcoming release of both Green Noise and These Silent Mansions.

The next RAH! event ‘Sylvia Sisters: Celebrating International Women’s Day‘ will take place on Thursday 8th March.

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