Continuing our series of Featured Poems from authors taking part in RISE events, this week we look ahead to our second RISE partnership with Durham Book Festival, which is running between 13th-30th October. As part of the festival, novelist Michael Stewart and poet Jean Sprackland will be visiting HMP Low Newton.
Charlie Darby-Villis is our Reader-in-Residence at HMP Low Newton, running two groups there as part of the Reading for Life pilot project, a collaborative initiative between The Reader Organisation and the National Personality Disorder Team at the Department of Health/Home Office. In the run-up to the RISE events, he’s been sharing some of Jean Sprackland’s work with his groups.
In preparation for RISE we’ve been reading Jean Sprackland’s poems for the last few weeks. This focus on one poet is a new, rewarding, departure for the groups. Themes have been explored, comparisons made, and we’ve come to really know Jean’s subtle, gentle, funny yet serious voice. As one reader put it; “I really like these poems because they’re real. They are real life”
Mattresses talks about everyone’s life but has a darkness that resonates with the women reading here. On the first reading one woman can’t hear the mattress but only a tale of a broken woman, lost and discarded. The others listen politely, sensitively, but then the group move on, back to the text, and the talk returns to mattresses, how they are an ‘archive’ of the everyday and everybody. The same woman’s expression changes to one of surprise: the idea that there could be other things to the poem, any poem, than what struck her at first reading is a genuinely new one. Another, deeper, insight follows: “I saw me”. What had been evident to everyone else in the room startles this woman to a laugh, and you can see her visibly awaken to new insights about herself and the potential of poetry.
In another group the darkness helps draw a listener in, intriguing her despite her previous hostility to what she described as the ‘irrelevance’ of poems. “I like people’s stories, and now I’m going to pass a mattress on the out and wonder what secret’s and stories it can tell.”
Someone else quickly responds “I wouldn’t want anyone to know the stories my mattress could tell”, with mischief and bravado in her eyes. This is greeted with a smattering of laughter, but I wonder if it was my imagination that I saw a trace of embarrassment in the truth that hid behind the joke as she looks away.
Another reader looks up thoughtfully, “we don’t want to think about the stories of the mattresses here, we want to block out the previous occupants.” The others nod in agreement, talking about their dislike of an older style of prison mattress, ‘…reeking with secrets.’ The new plastic covered ones are much better, all agree. Hard, not particularly comfortable, but they’re impersonal and let you forgot they’ve been shared. Even better the plastic surface can be wiped. One woman, usually very quiet, describes kneeling on the floor and washing her mattress down when she first moved into her cell. There’s another pause and then she holds my eyes, “Not that it was dirty like, just for the peace of mind, you know, psychological cleaning.”
There is another moment of quiet, broken with a laugh: “How did she even think to write a poem about mattresses?” The laughter spreads and then an idea – we’re all going to be meeting Jean, let’s ask.
Tipped down the embankment, they
sprawl like sloshed suburban wives,
buckled and split, slashed by rain,
moulded by bodies dead or disappeared
and reeking with secrets.
A lineside museum of sleep and sex,
an archive of thrills and emissions,
the histories of half-lives
spent hiding in the dark.
Arthritic iron frames might still be worth a bit,
but never that pink quilted headboard,
naked among thistles, relic
of some reckless beginning, testament
to the usual miracle: the need to be close,
however it stains and bruises.
Mattresses is taken from Tilt (Cape, 2007) and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author.
Jean will be appearing alongside Ruth Padel in The Narratives of Nature at Durham Town Hall, as part of Durham Book Festival, on Saturday 27th October at 1pm. For more information and to find out how to buy tickets, visit the Durham Book Festival website.
Keep up to date will all the latest news from RISE, discover how our first RISE events with Inua Ellams and Joe Dunthorne in association with Manchester Literature Festival went and share your own thoughts on the RISE authors work over on our new dedicated RISE blog.