Leaf Arbuthnot reviews Martha Sprackland

Milk Tooth published by Rough Trade Editions (2019)

Martha Sprackland’s pamphlet Milk Tooth opens with a tremor of uncertainty. “What do I remember?” the speaker asks; in echo she draws a scatter of recollections of a room in London, “like a lighthouse, very bright, very quiet”. Some medical event has unfolded, an abortion it seems. The speaker glugs buckets of sugared tea in a cotton robe, her tongue ferrous, an ache somewhere in her body. Meanwhile her mother circles the building in a car, possibly stopping off for a pastry: it’s unclear, as the speaker “never asked” how her mother used the time she spent among rows of “little beds”.

Sprackland’s poems are occupied and preoccupied by the female body. “I would like to write a wonderful utopia / for my breasts to live in,” she writes at one point. The strangeness of the image sent me into a spiral of Googling to find a picture of Rene Magritte’s portrait, Le Viol, of a woman’s head whose eyes have been replaced by breasts. The painting, like the poem, generates an uneasy tangling of repulsion and attraction.

Throughout the pamphlet Sprackland is minutely attentive to the ripening and coiling of the feminine form; ovaries that bud “at the finials of their elegant branches”; the “pear-shaped space” they belong to. Death and maternity twine together: as the mother circles the building where her daughter is perhaps preventing herself from becoming a mother, so later, in “Gasoline”, another daughter performs the ultimate betrayal by abandoning her mother to death in a Peruvian jungle. The poem describes Julianne Koepcke, who in 1971 was the sole survivor of a plane crash in the Amazon. In Sprackland’s telling of the story, Koepcke walks “for eleven days, pouring gasoline on her skin / to draw the maggots out.” As she saves herself, her mother Maria hangs “strapped to an aeroplane seat in the canopy / for three days before dying.” It is instructive that Sprackland chooses not to mention that Koepcke hunted for her mother unsuccessfully before she was forced to leave her to her fate.

Sprackland’s first pamphlet, Glass as Broken Glass, recorded the loss of a relationship, bodies failing or being failed by other bodies. “I caved him in with the heel of my shoe”, she wrote in ‘Snail’. You could almost hear the shell cracking. Milk Tooth likewise deals with forms that shatter and buckle. In “Gibbet”, the gaiety of “lovely muddy morning” in the countryside – hemlock “jouncing”, cow parsley “shocking and shouldering” – is trashed by the intervention of the luridly human. A red balloon ruins the idyll, its “squeaky fat lip” caught on barbed wire.

There are some problems, however. At times, descriptions feel familiar: a book is “splayed”, a slice of apple has “pale flesh”, a knife carries a “gleam of silver”. A couple of poems melt too quickly on the tongue. In ‘Milk’ the speaker is “bombed / with knockout drugs” and watches a waitress moving tables from the reach of a bruising sky. It’s a nicely written poem but doesn’t really take you anywhere. Yet such lapses of vigilance occur so seldom they command swift forgiveness.

The stand-out poem of the pamphlet is ‘Tooth’. The speaker has toothache. Terrible toothache: the offending molar is “like a ground grey stone lodged / in the fork of a tree”. At night the tooth “wakes up / like an eyeball”, lolls and rubs demonically, keeping her awake. It is no easy task to convey pain in poetry; indeed in medical contexts, people have trouble deciding where to place theirs on a scale of one to 10. This poem captures the specific agony of toothache with such remorseless accuracy I began rubbing my jaw. When the speaker finally cracks, escapes her torture chamber bedroom and finds her way to the “hot harbour” beyond, it feels like alleviation for the reader too.

Outside, she swills “palmfuls of the sea” to soothe the pulsing bezoar in her mouth. Yet nothing can balm a more universal roiling happening around her at scale. From the minutiae of the everyday – pain in someone’s mouth – the poem tacks to the universal. Pain is the drum to which the world beats, pervading “this clot, / this breaking news, this fire, / this prisoner of war”. The world is “sealed” and seethes “like a black egg / incorruptible by amoxicillin / and saline wash”. Relief comes not from the salt water below or drugs to zip the pain but from contact with a person miraculously not barbed by it – a man in the speaker’s bed, his “skin like cotton”, who asks her, “Honey, are you still sore?” The speaker cannot answer amid “the ship, the choke, the pliers, / the acorn cracked / and pushing through the floor.”

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