Five months ago I first heard of Sophie Sparham; three months ago I heard her read, and I met her; then I bought her book, and now here we are.
Bristling with humanity, love, humour and deeply-rooted – perhaps firmly-fixed – in Derby / Derbyshire – the place, the dialect, the people, specifically sometimes its men. This is one of those “how did I not know about this before” books / writers.
A collection, a poem, that starts: “My friends // hang from bedsheets in prison cells, / are identified by tattoos scattered over train tracks. / My friends are can-crushed, / my friend are cobble-stoned, / scraped like gum from the lines on tarmac”, is confident, has no time to waste, is going somewhere – and is prepared to take you along for the ride – but also tells you that it is from somewhere. Perhaps the city that she carries on her back “every smashed window / every torn sleeping bag / every boarded-up doorway...beneath 3 am streets lights“, perhaps “the jitty you sprint down…“, for, as she herself says, “As long as the car / has an engine and a place to go, I will climb inside.“
One of the central themes through the collection, is Sparham’s observations of, and considerations of, the men around her, their lives, their frustrations and sometimes how their anger manifests through (self) violence, drink: there are tender poems of love, “…we lay side by side in your bed, / you in a sleeping bag / me under covers / untouched as the sunrise.” (Jay); the long scattered poem Snow Drifting, presented sideways – almost a centre-fold – telling of a different way to spend a snow-filled Sunday, with her “beautiful risk“, “we’re not lost / we’re going nowhere“; and one of the most gorgeous poems about two young men Slow Dancing with our Jack, “You lead, I’ll follow. Jack, we gotta move. // Ignore the piss and rats and broken glass, / take my hand and sway close to me, Youth.” There are several poems that reference her father – the titular Weetabix-eater – whether he is “sweating in a suburban band / practice basement, second hand guitar hanging // from his neck” or the man being slowly worn away by his life on the assembly line, or the man at the breakfast table where he “wear(s) suits, jeans, tracks / drink(s) strong tea from a chipped blue mug and read the paper, / eyes up the flaws of the world.”
“Joyriding with Dennis Skinner” is one of the funniest ideas for a poem in a long time – although the poem has a lot more to offer than simple laughs: “I’ve learnt to pray by pressing my foot down / on the accelerator and holding my breath“, is pure Springsteen, one of the presiding spirits of the collection.
And who doesn’t love the idea of holding the funeral before the subject is dead, so that they can “drink the free bar / cry at the speeches…“, hear “all my little nicknames for you“, and perhaps they may not “…make the same decision / if we told you all our favourites memories…”
The collection is vivid, it crackles, it is surprising at times and so, so big-hearted.
“…we grow differently / down here in the cracks…” Well, you might do Youth, but different is beautiful too.
(available from Verve Poetry Press: https://vervepoetrypress.com)