Hard Water by Jean Sprackland

In many ways, poetry is about identity. The reason its lovers can so easily appreciate such a vast array of available talent is that the individuality of each poet is strongly reflected in their work. This goes beyond simple observations of style (some posts rhyme while others do not, for instance), but is rather something that is fundamentally entrenched within every poem anyone writes; like all art, a writer’s poem has a piece of them embedded within.

Jean Sprackland’s Hard Water is largely about this identity. It is a poem filled with the “I” pronoun that is designed to paint a picture through words of its narrator. It does this in a very poetic way, using metaphor, imagery, and structure to tell the reader who is speaking in a unique way. Heavily entrenched in English culture, as well as drawing inspiration from the natural world, Jean Sprackland’s work creates a highly detailed portrait out of only a few short verses to tell a rich story of feeling distant and belonging as one.

 

Hard Water Analysis

Stanza 1

The first line of the poem, which can be read in full here, reveals much straight away. When the narrator begins the piece about themselves with “I tried the soft stuff on holiday,” we are given a character and a setting straight away. “Hard water” refers to a degree of tap water prominent in the United Kingdom; “hard” water has been filtered in such a way as to fill it with a high number of minerals.  For trying the “soft” stuff, a likely reference to soft water, to be a notable event for the narrator tells us that they are out of place; they are on holiday in Wales, but don’t come from there, and are caught up in this “mania of tea drinking and hairwashing,” two things that would be markedly different depending on the filtration of the water used. This also suggests that they take a certain pride in their lifestyle; they “loved” coming home, where their hard water is waiting.

This verse does not rhyme, nor does it follow a rigid structure, but there is a structural consideration present. The first three lines are all eleven or twelve syllables long, while the last is eight. That the narrator loves this home cannot be overstated. It requires no analogy or examining. The short, blunt nature of the line really highlights the important nature of coming home. Although the “this” is not specified in this verse, it doesn’t need to be; it is normalcy, the every day comfort and safety offered by being home that anyone can relate to – it is hard water.


Stanza 2

The first line of the second verse explains that “this” is flat and straight; something simple and easily understood, like when someone asks how you’re feeling. This, the narrator believes, is the way water should be, but it also says something about their self, and how they feel at home. The the speaker fills a vessel with cold water. It is described as being anaesthetic, suggesting a calming, even numbing effect. Since the speaker is running a tap, it is likely that this is a simple description of either preparing a bath, or preparing a drink to calm them after a long day. The water is described as having a swimming pool-like scent to it, evoking the aura of chlorine, which is commonly found to be calming and cooling. This is the narrator’s home – hard water so cold as to be anaesthetic in nature, to calm down an omnipresent echo of anxiety. 


Stanza 3

To the speaker, hard cater is honest water. It’s not quite clean, but that’s okay. The narrator describes the “frankness” of limestone and gypsum (used in the process of “creating” hard water) that culminate in the alchemical taste of their water. And yet, the tone of this verse is very light. It uses words like “honest,” “bright,” and “frank” to offset words like “sour steam” and “alchemical taste” that would otherwise give the verse an unpleasant connotation. The descriptions come off as fond and nostalgic, as something to be missed and desired, which is very important for the speaker.


Stanza 4

At this point, the narrative drifts somewhat from tap water and focuses on a time when the speaker was having a difficult night and found themselves at a pub shortly before last orders. Too drunk to drive, or perhaps without the money to hire a taxi, they resolve to take the bus to get home. As they leave, a fall of acid rain confronts them, and they reflect on how the rain has been long cut off from its source, and no longer bears resemblance to the sea from which it came.

This verse could also be a reference to the narrator’s own feelings. When they look up at acid rain, they ignore the marks left on their face and think instead about being cut off and distant. The speaker feels as though they are separate from the rest of their world, whether it’s their friends, family, or society as a whole. They are the acid raid, which falls through a sheet far distant from its source.


Stanza 5

In the final verse, the theme of belonging completes its circle, as the narrator considers the acid rain as being caused by chemicals that also cause hard water. They don’t care about the mark on their face caused by the rain, but instead feel the simple, down-to-earth, bluntness that is so well reflected in their home, and consider that as outcast as they are on holiday in Wales, they belong to their home as surely as the hard water and the acid rain.


Historical Context

The poem, which was first published in Sprackland’s 2003 volume, Hard Water, is inspired by Burton upon Trent, the town Sprackland grew up in. It is described as being a brewing town, and is the home to a hard community. The author felt as though the hard water, which is ideal for the brewing community in Burton, was an apt metaphor for the growing up in the town, both on a literal and figurative level.

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