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I’ll Splinter by Tom Branfoot (Infernal Editions)

I’ll Splinter by Tom Branfoot (Infernal Editions)

My grandparents’ house is called ‘Tod Cot’. I had never really thought about it much – a random arrangement of sounds and syllables, it simply was. But the first poem in Tom Branfoot’s debut pamphlet, I’ll Splinter, gave me pause. The title of the poem, ‘Cotlight’, is a lovely word which, I learnt, refers to the light shining through windows after dark, from ‘cot’, a rural dwelling, now ‘cottage’. Tod is an old country term for fox, and now the two pieces of the puzzle fit together – Tod Cot, fox cottage, den, holt, home, the words unfurling themselves before me. I’ll Splinter encourages this kind of reframing of the everyday, as Branfoot’s sharp eye picks out the poetic in the pebbledash and tarmac of the in-between places. 

‘Cotlight’ is a fitting introduction to I’ll Splinter – it is an invitation, an invocation, a calling. ‘go there’, the poem begins, ‘and say that fire/ brought you // to the brook where light travels as bruised ginger.’ Exactly where ‘there’ is is never quite clear, but we are reminded of Seamus Heaney’s landscapes of the imagination where words are a means to their own end, endlessly discovering themselves. There is a longing for wildness in this poem that is never fully realised, striking a feral note that rings true through the entire collection. An impulse towards a primal, ancient something rears its head in the lines ‘call after me when you arrive / like an untied animal’. If you can see the cotlight then you are necessarily out in the dark, hovering between the artificial light spilling from double glazed windows and whatever darker something lurks beyond its yellow glow. 

Reading this collection feels, at times, like crouching in the garden after dark with a torch, illuminating the homely contours of the garage and the garden fence until they become uncanny and otherworldly, sitting quietly until the miracle of a toad or the flicker of a wing is caught in the beam. ‘Winter Storm and Plastic Flowers’ is full of exacting and at times excruciating details of rural mundanity – ‘the polythene-bagged hay bales / on the perimeter of deserted / horse fields distant cars tear past’. The image of sparrows darting from ‘shrub to waxy / shrub pared back and almost berryless / pebble-dashed and ordinary’ is chillingly exact. In turning his attention to neither the sublime nor the sordid, but the rural ordinary, Branfoot shines a hard electric light on the places between which form such a large part of our experience but are blurred out by familiarity. 

Again and again, the speaker’s meetings with the natural world and the wonder it entails remain curiously frustrated. In ‘Minor Katabasis’, the speaker forages for ‘unbloomed fruits / by the clear stream’, then ‘empty handed I head home / along Station Road’. Despite the plethora of exquisite detail, the ‘liver-spotted mushrooms / and a skinful of sloe’, there is a feeling of aching need unmet – whilst nominally foraging for mushrooms, something else, something bigger and deeper and older is being sought, and repeatedly eludes. 

This fumbling desire for wildness asserts itself in ‘Shadowmoss’, which shares its name (intriguingly) with a Greater Manchester tram stop. The lines between the ‘natural world’ and our own blend: perhaps in ways only possible in the semi-rural, post-industrial places that the collection illuminates. Deer appear, but only in the context of the very human tarmac: ‘come rutting season / deer edge closer to their limits / we listen for bellows through the traffic (…) the fog lifts to black skids and fur scraps.’ It is a poem, like the collection, of almost-meetings, of glancing blows, of desire for contact unmet. It cries out for movement, yet remains curiously static. Instead of wild geese the speaker sees men ‘stumble into winter’s mouth / and nothing but migration’, the ‘drifting men’ taking down a traveling fun fair offer the closest thing to the freedom of the geese.

The pull between a keen love for the detail of a place and an itching desire for something else, anything else, hums throughout this collection. I mentioned stasis, but ‘dormancy’ and ‘dormant’ both appear in ‘Winter Storm and Plastic Flowers’ – an altogether more hopeful concept, suggesting an eventual reemergence. The two words pull at the competing nostalgia and terror that periods ‘at home’ in your early twenties can instill, an undercurrent which threads its way through ‘Loom of the Land’, the second poem in the collection. The poem reads like loose Old English alliterative verse, as the speaker walks a relay ‘from street lamp to bus stop  slow as night’, the initial alliteration and the regular division of each coupleted line into two giving an ancient weight to these modern, prosaic subjects. It is a fitting form considering Old English literature’s concern with place and belonging, with the material fact of the hall and the invisible structures of kinship and loyalty. ‘people leave’, Branfoot writes, ‘because going makes a sound’, and we are reminded of the wild geese, the drifting men. The image of the cenotaph, the empty tomb, in the final line embodies the fret and drift of the poem as a monument to absence. 

Despite the immediacy of Branfoot’s subjects, this is a quietly literary collection, with a rich array of form and allusion, from Old English alliterative verse to nocturnes, fugues and free verse; attention to rhyme and rhythm crisply attended to throughout. All of this contributes to the feeling of meticulous detail and controlled observation. 

If the first poem in the collection is an invitation, then the final poem, ‘Mooring’, is a kind of acceptance. In choosing one of the oldest and tenderest of filial reunions, that of Odysseus and his father in Homer’s Odyssey, Branfoot writes not only about one father, but all fathers. Mingling the epic and the everyday, Branfoot stays true to Homer’s original right down to beggar’s disguise and the sharing of scars, until, after feasting and bathing in olive oil, ‘we leave the radio on / to not feel alone.’ After the discomfort and the ambiguity of the rest of the collection, this poem is a gentle ode to the rituals and the awkward comforts of home, the places we are from but do not quite belong, which remain deeply part of us even as we struggle to escape them. 

Hannah Green 12th August 2021

A Dance With Hermes by Lindsay Clarke (Awen Publications)

A Dance With Hermes by Lindsay Clarke (Awen Publications)

The artist is an opener of doors and Lindsay Clarke’s hermetic sequence sketches for us images of gates and crossroads, gaps in landscape where the eye, itself a window to the soul, can reflect Janus-like upon the self through attention to intricacies of form in the natural world. In the ‘Note at the Threshold’ to this intriguing glimpse at the shimmering light of a Greek world Lindsay Clarke acts as our host:

“That they recognised so many impersonal powers at work through him suggests that the ancient Greeks well understood that the young Hermes who entered the Homeric world of the Olympian gods brought with him deep-rooted associations and attributes from a far earlier age. In any case, there is always an essential ambiguity in the nature of this god of the stone pile. He may be there as an invaluable guide across difficult terrain but he is not entirely to be trusted and may also choose to lead us astray. Hikers and climbers still add herm-stones to cairns, and Hermes still often faces us with choices at a crossroads; but as the image evolved in ancient times, instead of a rough stone pile, a monolith was erected in some terminal places, and a bearded head was carved on the standing stone, and out of its limbless pillar was thrust a vigorous penis. Here was Hermes as the god of fertility, drawing generative power up from the dark underworld – an ithyphallic alpha male, formidably guarding his herds beside the life-giving female presence of a spring.”

The herma marks that liminal space, that boundary between territories, that moment in both geography and imagination where one world becomes another. This is a junction, a cromlech, a door and the “sly / light-fingered god of crossways, transit, / emails and exchange…” acts as the door-keeper:

“…..the wing-heeled, shifty,
wheeler-dealing go-between, who’ll slip right

through your fingers if you try to pin
him down.”

There is a quiet lyricism in these poems and a tone of determination that places the evanescent within a topographical steadiness:

“Herma: a heap of stones such as a traveller
sweating in the noonday heat might make out
shimmering in the haze, then feel his dry throat
freshen at its signal that a spring is near.

And having drunk and put a random stone
on to the pile, might he then wonder whether
others who have placed an offering on that cairn
have also caught a glimpse of Hermes standing there?”

This lord of the threshold possesses a darker side and his rape of Chione introduces the world to Autolycus, grandfather of Odysseus the man of wiles. That figure of course also gives his name to the duplicitous snapper-up of unconsidered trifles in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: woe betide he who encounters this singing knave as the Clown discovers to his cost!
In his ‘Note at the Threshold’, Clarke alerts us to an association between the Greek Hermes and the agent of transformation in alchemy, Mercurius Duplex. He offers us a “regular use of half-rhymes to suggest the elusive nature of the god – something almost grasped but not quite” and suggests that the format used for the opening poem, ‘Koinos Hermes’, “became more or less standard for the sequence of verses which followed hot on its winged heels almost by dictation”. This quality of elusiveness reminds me of the work of Edward Thomas and I am drawn back to those fine statements made by F.R. Leavis in 1932:

“Edward Thomas is concerned with the finer texture of living, the here and now, the ordinary moments, in which for him the ‘meaning’ (if any) resides. It is as if he were trying to catch some shy intuition on the edge of consciousness that would disappear if looked at directly.”

It is surely no accident that Jeremy Hooker, the man who wrote about Thomas in 1970 in an essay titled ‘The Sad Passion’, should have written the blurb on the back of this new book from Awen Press. In 1970 Hooker had referred to Thomas’s “quest for wholeness”, the relationship of a whole man to human society and its home on earth. Here, dancing with Hermes, he writes:

“This is an impressive collection, with an ancient and perennial wisdom”.

The Awen website can be located at http://www.awenpublications.co.uk

Ian Brinton, 23rd September 2017

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