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'Ballroom, Lee Plaza Hotel,' from The Ruins of Detroit (Photo credit: Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre - used with permission)

‘Ballroom, Lee Plaza Hotel,’ from The Ruins of Detroit (Photo credit: Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre – used with permission)

Yves Marchand’s and Romain Meffre’s photographs of Detroit ended my day at lunchtime. The Sunday supplement they were selling printed a tantalising few, so the day’s mission was to find more. These photos take urban decay to another level, as opulent sparkles are bleared and blackened. The photos reminded me first of Shelley’s Ozymandias, as who at General Motors or Packard in the mid-twentieth century could have imagined Detroit’s spectacular metamorphosis into a set for a post-apocalyptic movie? I’m not so sure about Ozymandias now. The trouble with the antique land is its distance, and this cushions us against Shelley’s punch. We expect ancient Rome to be, well, ancient. The force of Marchand and Meffre’s blow comes from the fact that Detroit is no antique land. A small number of years ago it was a pulsing metropolis. The horror of these photographs is that they’re like visiting the house of an elderly relative, but on an epic scale. You remember the knickknacks that, as a child, glittered so brightly but now are dusted with skin and speak of death.  

Old piano

Old piano (Photo credit: Vince Alongi)

In Moving the Piano, Sprackland’s instrument is presented with rheumatoid ‘damp in its joints, hamstrung and hip shot.’ With its dodgy joints and hips, this old joanna sounds more like someone’s nan than a concert grand, but the poem’s personifications are richer and more complex than this. Sure, ‘damp in its joints’ reads like arthritis, and arthritis does flare up in cold, wet conditions but, unlike a medical condition, the piano’s swollen joints are the result of neglect and rough living. We would never degrade the elderly like this, would we? ‘Hamstrung’ suggests deliberate hobbling by slitting the hamstrings in the legs. Sprackland drives language hard throughout the poem and this word’s no exception. Sure, we all understand that the piano’s not going anywhere in a hurry, but there’s a visual quality here too: the Lyre Braces, those gleaming brass rods which hold the pedals steady, look suspiciously like tendons flapping loose.

Dead Crow

Dead Crow (Photo credit: anonphotography)

The collection’s first poem, Opening A Chimney, explores the same ground from another perspective. Whereas Moving the Piano opens with the negativity of damp grubbiness, the word ‘opening’ has connotations of possibility and freedom. A couple of times in the collection, Sprackland’s title is also her first line, and she does this here: ‘Opening a Chimney // lets in the world.’ This device blows clean air through the poem before we even get the first line. The harshest weather is presented as a gift, as the wind ‘throws down hailstones / racketing into the grate / accurate as coins in a chute’ and this intimate, cloying space is specifically targeted by the bounty of nature’s coins. However, the final stanza strikes an unsettling note: the exuberance of nature is liable to disturb the unwelcome and repressed. ‘Now something falls, soft as a thought – / a clod of soot, or the bones of an old nest.’

In the nature mort, Houseplants, Sprackland sustains the chilly atmosphere of desiccation as ‘They lean together on the windowsills, / casting anorexic shadows.’ How can things ‘lean together’ without evoking Eliot’s The Hollow Men? ‘We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas! / Our dried voices, when / We whisper together / Are quiet and meaningless / As wind in dry grass.’ This association endows the plants with an existential terror which helps to make this poem, like many of the others, feel like a haunting, and the still life is more Mapplethorpe than Matisse. Sprackland allows herself no more than a couplet per stanza, which contributes to the sense of starvation. The second line’s short a foot too, which adds bite to the line’s anorexia.Like Marchand’s and Meffre’s extraordinary photographs, Sprackland’s collection sank its hooks straight in and hasn’t let go. These poems evoke time and place with precision yet, in the shadows and up the chimneys, mutability is palpable. I know this because I can feel it through the hairs on the back of my neck.

Buy Jean Sprackland’s Sleeping Keys from Random House