Review | Green Noise by Jean Sprackland

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Green Noise, Jean Sprackland, Jonathan Cape, 2018, 64pp, £10.00

With Green Noise, the fifth collection from Jean Sprackland, she attunes us to a planetary resonance. Many of these poems speak directly to our sense of sound, and Sprackland operates on multiple scales to revel in the concert of nature. In the twenty-first century, this is an architectonic reckoning, from species to domain via the taxonomic ranks of genus, family, order, class, phylum and kingdom. These poems work at varying gradations to locate the tension between our urbane world and the grind of our planetary gear.

According to Sprackland, ‘Green noise is the mid-point of the white noise spectrum, and it’s sometimes described as the background noise of the world. The poems in this new collection listen for what is audible and available to be known and understood, and what is not.’ At a recent reading, Sprackland added ‘If there really is a background noise of the world, its never more audible, I feel, than in spring.’ As Ted Hughes knew, that same force that moves tectonic plates is also the force of seasonal change. It is cataclysmic. Here, that force has an incipient human signature, and the epigraph from Denise Levertov treads the line between the human and the non-human world as she asks ‘was there / some moment / dividing / song from no song?’ This psalmic refrain points to the two poles of grief and joy where song is engendered and in the opening poem, ‘April’, the force comes at a riotous pitch fusing and confusing the two. The poem begins, ‘machine of spring with all your levers thrown to max’ and propels an insatiable energy that gathers pace in this unpunctuated opener that is as epiphanic as it is orgasmic, ‘now the branch is swollen   priapic’; ‘motorway hedgerows on thrust’. The poem troubles the expectation of change with its ‘bashed clock’, our indexes of change have become scrambled, and here (and throughout the collection), sterile science becomes prurient sensation. The close of ‘April’ rests on the tension between this frenzy of life as both cruel and wonderful, beguiled by that which we do not know. The repetition of ‘wondering’ follows ‘lying’, ‘breathing’, and ‘hearing’, opening a space for a two-fold interpretation — and this is what Sprackland does so well — nudging words into the light by the careful formal layering of the stanzas. The word speaks of the interior wonder of the speaker, but sounding again, the double ‘ring’ ‘ring’ could be an alarm for a cacophonous retribution.  

In Sprackland’s poems, the sounds of words, how they feel in the mouth point to an intimacy with their physicality and internal music, as in the earlier ‘Machinery’ from Tilt (2007), which ‘leaves a hot taste on the tongue’. She is alive to the way words seduce us with their meaning, where nothing is ever fully disclosed and that lingering trace of something ‘leaves a gap / that will never close completely. // And there are others: / Girder. Tarmac. Interface.’ Here Sprackland’s craft is Derridean; — his riddles on the materiality of language often provide epigraphic spurs — the supplementarity of one thing then another opens a space between them. That trace left behind and between words is the site of Sprackland’s everyday alchemy and here in ‘Remembering’ there is ‘the-not-quite silence that can fill up / the forecourt of the redundant petrol station’. The noxious smell of petrol that lingers on does so as half-formed, much like our memory. For Sprackland, ‘we are made of such absences’ and this hinterland behind the known and remembered is where she deconstructs the relational status of presence and absence with poems that enact reverberations of the past that crash into our present. This is manifest in poems such as ‘Alms’, part of a sequence called ‘The Lost Villages’ where an old wayside well ‘would echo with laughter’ were the alms not paid by the resting traveller. These ancient myths are observed as a deep vibration just under our noses where it’s ‘Hard to picture any of this’ now there is, under the flyover, a ‘grey scurf of noise over everything.’

Listening close is a preoccupation in Sprackland’s poetry, as in her collection ‘Tilt’ where ‘Ice on a Beach’ comes “with its own internal acoustic”. The sound could be John Clare’s “crizzling”, said to be the sound of water forming into ice. Today it carries a paradoxical resonance of this phenomena in the sound of a parched landscape, shrivelling, and cracking. Inversions such as these reveal anthropogenic base-notes to the earth’s acoustics. There is a human flavour now to the wild freedom of Hughes’s hawk, which here stares back at its own reflection in ‘Solar Field’; or his ‘Horses’, where ‘grey silent fragments // of a grey silent world’ are here Symbolist-loud. The “red, red” of Hughes’s dawn eruption is where Sprackland takes the baton for ‘Red Horses’, recalling Franz Marc’s painting of the same name where the vitalism of an uninhibited energy is created using colour as a formal strategy.

Sprackland acquaints us with a shared ontology of living and non-living things, from inanimate objects, to plants, streets or statues. In ‘Dumb Animals’ she shows a covey of schoolgirls in their attempt to rescue an escaped guinea pig from under the PE shed. There is no negotiated space between animals and ourselves, just the hope of ‘a cool dark region in the centre / which was beyond us’. It is the absence of the animal’s voice which is amplified as it is eventually caught ‘to be caged and pacified’. In ‘Aphid Farm’ she occupies the minutiae of the insects’ world, finding a plane between human forms of exploitation and those found in miniature. Testing Orwell’s allegory of the Russian revolution, the poem explores the phenomena of ants that ‘milk’ aphids; ‘They use their antennae to stroke them stupid’ secreting the honeydew they prize. Who’s to say that exploitation is silent? It may be horrific and full of screams but ‘if there is suffering, it’s too faint to hear’. The ‘sound husbandry / to slaughter a third of the stock for meat’ is about the rebalancing of nature, as if nature despises imbalance. Sprackland here plays with the formalist incongruities of allegory, pitting one class against another which shapes this as a human observation. There is a cost, and later in ‘Lost/Lust’, ‘you can’t move here without a massacre’ points to the aggregation of different scales of mass destruction as an everyday occurrence.

Similarly in ‘Exodus’ we find ‘Good fuel / from the old ash which looked dead last spring’, where managed atrophy can institute growth and a re-balancing, ‘Take it right back, said a neighbour, it might recover, / and new buds swelled between the wounds.’ Here the simple act of throwing a log on the fire is a conflagration of the insect kingdom, as the wood ‘hisses and keens and oozes sap’ and the revelation is a universal reckoning:

and now in the firelight I see how it is,

 

how it always is: life scrambling out

from the rifts and crevices, life

too small to name, or too fast to be sure –

woodlouse or pillbug, spider, weevil,

click beetle, darkling beetle, millipede –

A litany of victims of a simple human act is not a plea to desist our actions. The poem points to the dis-aggregation of scale when we see how things really are. This is a once in a lifetime massacre, a Pompeii of the insects world, and it reminds us of our co-existence with frequencies that tie us to the song of the earth. Sprackland is alive to this co-determination and at the close of ‘Swimming Poem’ there is a reassurance in her voice, as if she is showing us how to hold delicately the minute miracles of loss and gain ‘while I steep myself in the stained and seedy present / and say I am part of this.

The poems are still sinking in, but for me, a long-time fan of Sprackland’s, it is her best collection yet.

Words by Owen Gurrey.

For more on Jean Sprackland, visit Jonathan Cape.

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