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