Alan Morrison on
Peter Branson and
Two Volumes, A Dozen Years Each:
Peter Branson’s Red Hill and
Alexis Lykiard’s Getting On
Selected Poems 2000-2012
Belfast, Lapwing Publications, 2013
Brown Corduroy Fields
I published Peter Branson’s similarly titled debut ebook collection, Red Shift, as the first in a series of Caparison solo ebook collections, via The Recusant, back in 2009. Of the scores on scores of early submissions to The Recusant, Branson’s dexterously disciplined and cadent poems, mostly composed in exacting blank verse iambic pentameter, stood out to me as among the most accomplished I had received, and so when I decided to set up a small ebook imprint, Caparison, Branson was the first on my list for a solo production. Red Shift followed, and contained many exemplary poems, mostly politically engaged (left-leaning, naturally) and laced with memorable aphorisms.
But on reading his belated debut print collection (also a Selected Poems), Red Hill, published by the excellent and eclectic Belfast-based press Lapwing (who produce beautifully simple and elegant perfect hand-bound and hand-printed volumes in thin-spined white liveries), I was more than pleasantly surprised to see that since Red Shift Branson’s poetry has progressed significantly, and entirely positively, from what was already a highly accomplished metier, into what is now, in my view, an even more impressive oeuvre whose range of subjects, painterly imagery and metaphor, and prosodic precision have become something quite formidable.
The wealth of varied and respected journal and supplemental credits listed at the front of this collection also pays testament to the wide appeal of Branson’s poetry, his Acknowledgements almost constituting an A-Z of the most prestigious poetry journals around; and the triple-A of Acumen, Agenda and Ambit, at the beginning of the list, demonstrates how versatile Branson’s style is, while only the most commercial of post-modernist glossies are conspicuous by their absence, which itself pays testament to the fact that Branson’s style might be supplement-friendly, but is not, thankfully, in any sense ‘fashionable’ or ‘trendy’ enough to find itself couched alongside today’s most groomed young-up-and-coming poets of ‘the moment’ (or ‘Puppies’, as one might refer to them). Quite simply, Branson has now proven himself a masterly poetic craftsman and one of the most rhythmically accomplished currently writing. Readers will forgive my expediency in choosing to comment on what are for me the stand-out poems of this fine collection in page order.
Ironically Red Hill kicks off with two of the least typical of Branson’s poems, ‘Nanny Goat Lane’ and ‘Attila the Nun’, both of which are composed in short-lined free verse, following no particular iambic meter. Though not among the ripest of this collection’s rich crop of poetic miniatures, both pieces are nicely judged, albeit of a slightly more mainstream timbre than most of Branson’s poems. ‘Nanny Goat Lane’ ends on a pleasing half-rhymed image:
tall as the clouds,
you scoured the wooded tracks
with finest ivory
proud on their brows.
The punning titled ‘Attila the Nun’ alludes to Branson’s upbringing in the Roman Catholic faith. It produces an arresting description of the –presumably rather tyrannical– nun of the title: ‘the stark, starch, habit-white,/ black-shrouded penguin suit’. But for me, this collection starts proper with the first of legion tightly-packed iambic blank verse sonnets (very much Branson’s prosodic signature), ‘Jubilee’, which begins with a quote from the nursery rhyme ‘Jack be nimble, Jack be quick’, and a dedication to one Brian Lythgoe. Branson’s poems are so compact and precise in terms of iambic exactitude that they almost come across as slightly obsessive in terms of prosodic discipline –but then, isn’t poetry, in its most meticulously composed forms, among the more obsessive of the artistic mediums..?
‘Jubilee’ is an immediately intriguing poem, rich in imagery carried by a faintly Dylan Thomas-esque cadence:
Rosarean Club, with half the parish wrapt,
like sympathetic string. As rare back there
as outhouse loos today and rationed, wireless
king, ghosts float before your eyes, reflect
grey-flannel world outside. Mind set one meanstreet,
ranger ride away, sneak home to build
an outlaw roost behind the chicken coop.
You’re down four foot before you know, see off
light rain with hessian and cane, off-cut
broadloom for floor, snug as a grave. …
One notes the dextrous sprung rhyme of ‘rain’ and ‘cane’ within the same line (11).
If I had any criticism of Branson’s miniaturist style, it’s simply that at times this almost symbiotic impulsion to stick strictly to the iambic pentameter for each line inevitably produces very sharply clipped phrasing which, with images after images punctuated by commas, can occasionally come across almost as image-lists; and this in turn can also remind one a little of the more staccato aphoristic journalistic practice of some of the higher brow broadsheets (or, for example, the figurative compactness of David Thomson’s inimitable film reviews), although that is certainly not a negative quality, most often, quite an arresting one.
These are of course mere quibbles –hence best to get them out of the way early on– with what is in the main a stylistic tendency at which, for me, Branson excels above any poet currently writing (at least those of whom I am aware); and if many of his verses can be categorised as ‘supplemental poems’, perfectly formed miniatures which sit neatly and compactly in a white square couched between broadsheet columns, that is certainly no criticism either, since, unlike many of his contemporaries, Branson’s poems actually have something interesting to impart, if not in subject then almost always in terms of descriptive image, invariably fairly gritty Northern urban images, tinged with some form of social comment (or, to put it another way, poetic miniatures which paint an urban picture –more often than not rather Lowryian– in striking aphoristic language, almost like social document).
‘The Salvager’ is the first of many descriptively striking poems, beautifully composed with some deftly evocative combinations of images –and manages too to impart a wistful and very touching narrative, which appears to be about an older relative, perhaps the poet’s father or father-in-law, remembered by the bits and bobs he spent much of his spare time among in his shed, after his death from cancer:
He spent his hard-earned freedom in this shed,
two bar electric fire, appraising form
and filling betting slips, old woodwork tools
and garden implements fussed over, rubbed
to sheen with oily rag, at our expense.
No doubt he was at home here making stuff,
his fag end glowing on/off, like Morse code.
The smell’s what kicks you when you first come in,
that mix of sawdust, polish, oil and damp.
His workbench fills one end and there are shelves
on all four walls, with jam-jars full of strange
concoctions, tins of every shape and hue,
unlabelled so you’ve no idea what lies
within, yet he knew perfectly each one:
drill bits, nuts, bolts, nails, screws, rawl plugs…
…He’d tease out nails from planks,
tap-hammer them till straight - against his vice.
He fashioned things with craft and care, each joint
perfection, never mind how long it took,
his coat slung on a nail inside the door,
the pockets tired and sagging out of true.
By his muscular grasp of the nuts and bolts of language and image, Branson manages to pull off a poem which ostensibly depicts a fairly quotidian scene with such confidence and panache that he makes it genuinely interesting and arrestingly evocative, where many other contemporary poets would, in less well-crafted, cadent forms of more elliptical, sparser lines, have simply bored the reader before they reached the end. With this, as with many of Branson’s poems, I could have comfortably continued reading something of twice this length, so beautifully sure-footed are his flourishing lines. Towards the end of this poem, where the fatal illness that snatches this handyman from his family is cited, we also get an intriguing allusion to Cathy’s dipsomaniacal brother Hindley from Emily Brontë’s magisterial Wuthering Heights:
“Man of few words,” Macmillan nurse explains
when you turn up just after he has gone.
Later, you howl, pummel the steering wheel.
Hot tears, bleak school reports, cold war missiles,
dark Hindley clones lurk deep inside your dreams.
This ‘Hindley’ allusion presumably hints at a darker side to the handyman relative (e.g. the hint ‘tap-hammer them still straight/ against his vice’), presumably the poet’s father-in-law, who is otherwise depicted more rosily at his soberest and most resourceful. It’s interesting too to note again the clipped phrasing of the lines, such as ‘Macmillan nurse explains’, which would seem to echo the very Northern (mostly Yorkshire) habit of omitting the definite article in everyday speech –a serendipitous complement to this distinctly Northern poet’s iambically precise style.
‘Time Travelling’ has a lovely look on the page, being arranged less compactly than most of the other poems in the collection, with slightly rangier lines falling in indented verses, giving it a sing-song appearance –and even though the lines are not strict iambic pentameter, there is still a strongly cadent rhythm to them, hinged nicely by sporadic assonantal half-rhymes. As ever, the descriptions are quit exquisitely phrased:
such inborn, fragile elegance; ash brown
above a creamy, dappled breast; what taste!
Dash out in twisty, darting flight to snap
up insects on the wing: turn deftly back
to self-same spot they started from, like kids
used to in playground games embracing chalk
and token bits of brick.
Eggs warm to touch,
you’d gaze in wonderment; translucent, pale
and delicate, pure porcelain…
This poem appears to be a figurative narrative using bird symbolism for someone’s children leaving home, the ‘old habitat’, for ‘six new houses schemed’, and there is some nice imagery relating to what is presumably a ‘bereaved’ mother recalling old struggles to feed her young saplings:
that thankless task, striving to pacify
those gaping famished mouths.
So cadent is Branson’s poetry in its sprung rhythm that they often carry the effect of being rhymed verses when they are not, and are almost only ever at most half-rhyming, and this is of course largely due to the brilliantly bouncy iambic blank verse –‘The Blood Eagle’ is a great example of this Bransonian buoyancy –here’s a sizeable excerpt:
Same postage-stamp, iconic stance, you say
they’ve long died out. “A wanderer,” he smiles,
“from Scandinavia.” The statue stirs;
winged sail, red shepherd sky, dawn sacrifice.
Can’t wait to tell them at the boarding house.
Defying gravity, first bouncing bomb
then low-slung Lancaster, you watch it till
there’s nothing there to see, time in reverse.
There’s a great use of alliteration in the following stanza, particularly with the g-words, and a masterly deployment of assonance throughout this and the subsequent verse:
Less anger than relief, strange men a straight
red card, they’re on your case. Lips sealed, you sound
silent retreat, trail tears of cupboard grief.
Tongue tied, hot beans to spill, you rage inside.
Horned devils armed with broadsword, axe and spear
spew from the dragon’s mouth, as quiet as wraiths.
With famished rabid strides you make high ground
before church bells cry foul, whole town asleep.
(I particularly like the phrase ‘low-slung Lancaster’). Here Branson demonstrates how a sense of cadence is eminently possible without any recourse to rhyme-endings through a meticulous control of blank verse iambic pentameter. This is a difficult prosodic effect to get right, but Branson has a habit of making it seem effortless.
‘Gobby’ is another bravura burst of iambic buoyancy and riveting imagery, rich with brilliant alliteration:
Bolted, thin as an unstrung bow, all eyes,
you stooped to suit, with Tonka hands and feet,
stilt arms and legs like loose-strung bags of bones,
pure pantomime, it never worked. I joined
your scourging, swallowed pride; when things died down,
played faithless Peter by your side, for you,
pie crust of permanent surprise baked on
your doughy face, were indispensible.
… With birds, somehow you knew.
Outside your territory you’d point which patch
the garden warbler’s nest would be, spot where
the barn owl should appear and she’d be there,
pale as a ghost, gilded and quartering.
This is near-tangible poetry; images such as ‘pie crust of permanent surprise baked on your doughy face’ are exceptionally original and imaginative, as well as unobtrusively alliterative. ‘Ice Maiden’ returns to the Bransonian staple of iambic blank verse sonnet form, proffering some more beautifully judged images –just take the first perfectly sculpted verse:
“Married the job,” but at what cost (Mum talk),
way back? Dad’s two pints proud: “Inspector in
the Force, retired with cataracts, own house.”
Like rusty headlamps on her goggled Sprite,
tight-lipped, not able to relax, knick-knacks
at risk, those frog eyes follow me around.
Thick lenses wither, halos of white light,
garaged, widescreen, gimlet-gaze magnified.
‘Sandpipers’ is a lengthier poem, in more irregular meter, and its first three lines strike an instantly affecting aphorism:
You notice every time you pass, old pubsign
faded to a pallid afterthought,
like watercolour ravished by the sun.
But the linguistic momentum doesn’t stop there –it goes into full tilt with some more stunningly sculpted descriptive lines which, in their rich lyricism, remind one of Keats:
You’ve never been inside, imagining
tar-varnished walls, tired furniture, cramped style.
Recall your visitor, aged nine, disturb
him from his meal, pipe-dream, small patch of silt
above the broken wheel and silent mill.
Too small and delicate to be a snipe…
…like wine, improves
with age, “The Shadow Of Your Smile” refined
and more intense. Forewarned by piercing threenote
cry, you’ve scanned the pool for strangers through
tall reeds and sedge, then watched the bobbing head
and tail, those stiff, bowed wings in ticking flight.
You clamber back, through feral dank remains
of ornamental Wilderness, last trace
of fallen country pile, now real estate,
to watch the willow warbler flit from tree
to bush, a loose leaf nervous on the breeze,
until it falls to ground and disappears
beneath low bramble and rough thatch…
The image of ‘country pile’ is particularly striking –how often do poets evoke rippling pastures by depicting them as rumpled carpets? ‘Jenkie’ continues the alliterative dexterousness:
Can’t raze it from my brain, that Christmastime
you spewed the claret down on Stafford Street;
worked in between the cobbles, wrinkled, crazed,
all weather face. Drunk as a leaping lord,
knocked from your ninepins by a headstrong car.
Was never caught. He felt your collar though.
“The impact snapped the second vertebra”:
that skittled you. An educated man…
I also find Branson’s use of colloquialisms and slightly faded phrases appealingly nostalgic, such as ‘leaping lord’ and ‘ninepins’. For me, one of the most accomplished poems in this exceptional collection, and certainly one of the very best of the sonnet forms, is ‘Rook Pie’ (preceded by a quote from the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye’), which has an almost Keatsian quality to it in terms of startling images and phrases couched jewel-like in precisely cut sequins of lines:
Plump squabs fresh from nest were treats way back.
Told how he scaled, swayed in frail rigging, wing
‘n’ prayer, green besoms in clenched fists the glue
that bound, singled him out from Icarus.
Graveside, words spent, you view the spire beneath
Red Hill. A beech stand screens old town and new.
See in its topmast reach, ink blemishes,
x rays of bleeds that fetched him here today.
Black birds, our noisy neighbours, nomads from
the Steppes, here centuries before those bells
were cast, are oil-on-water sheen close up,
soft purples, blues and greens, like dragonflies.
They shoal at dusk, like mating galaxies,
cavort and kiss, one consciousness, one will.
Images such as ‘green besoms in clenched fists’ immediately grab the eye, and subsequent ones such as ‘ink blemishes’ and ‘Black birds’ chime nicely in alliterative recapitulation; while the subtle sprung half-rhymes and alliteration of ‘the glue/ that bound, singled him out’, grabs the ear. This is a beautifully composed and phrased poem, a little jewel. ‘Men’s Work’ is another compact sonnet, its theme seeming to be about The Troubles in Ireland, with the subtitle reference, ‘Wicklow, October 1920’; more specifically, it appears to depict a female Irish Nationalist activist (or for want of a better term, ‘insurgent’, of the nascent Irish Republican Army), described in a visceral, almost erotic manner, reminding one of the female counterpart to the notorious gangster duo Bonny and Clyde, of the same period:
…Broad daylight, pistols tucked
inside your knickers, you’re the gunslinger.
Crude hardness bruising chaste white thigh, each signpost
one more Station-of-the-Cross…
The imagery in the poem plays palpably on Roman Catholic symbolism, and Branson’s alliterative descriptions are as ever robustly displayed:
Mouth parched, loose talk or treachery
bad news, sweat beads anointing brow and nape
like rosaries, you draw more secular
responses from the Black an’ Tans…
The final lines seem almost to juxtapose religious with sexual practice, even if this is just suggested rather than explicitly invoked:
At Mass, the Lads make furtive craic,
like émigrés, outside the high church door.
Such scant observance male preserve, you kneel
within, amenable, head veiled and bowed.
One notes the –I believe– Geordie colloquialism, ‘craic’, the etymology of which is presumably either Gaelic or Irish. Branson undoubtedly has a strong Irish connection, hence, too, his formative Roman Catholicism, and the following poem ‘On the Old Bog Road’ is also subtitled ‘County Galway, Ireland’. This small gem of a poem, another blank verse sonnet, starts off with disarmingly aphoristic aplomb:
His face adds texture to the ground he cuts.
Cured by the wind and rain and written on
like pages from long-faded paperbacks…
And again ‘craic’ appears, this time couched alongside the alliteratively contrapuntal ‘cook’ and ‘crook’:
…The air is dozy with
the sense of drying peat. You watch him turn
new-sheening turves to cook, then try his spine,
lean on his crook to craic the time…
The word ‘turves’ is presumably also some form of (Irish?) parochialism. The poem concludes on a Hardyesque aphorism:
He’s shaman-wise, stacks visionary truths,
old as these hills, we burn unwittingly,
like youth’s fair-mindedness, to smoke and dust.
‘At the Rising of the Moon’ is dedicated to folk singer Luke Kelly who died in 1984 at only 44; the title of the poem partly taken from a song by John Keegan Kerry with an ‘At’ added at its beginning. This poem starts with another of Branson’s descriptive flourishes, initially appealing to our aural sense:
The awesome present of your voice: outside
the angry guttur of a power saw;
slowly the copper beech across the way
is layered to the floor. The Council say
it’s wormed inside and dangerous, mindful
of recent winter storms when branches tore.
(Presumably ‘guttur’ is the poet’s own coined noun taken form the adjective ‘guttural’). The image of the copper beech being cut down at the beginning of the poem would appear to serve as the prime metaphor for the early death, at his prime, of the folk singer in question, who is next described, brilliantly, in colouristic echoes of the felled tree:
Feral red hair, rash beard and navvy looks,
you work each song as though it is your last;
a wild wood-kerne, veins cabling from your neck
as unequivocal as gelignite.
Beneath a rover’s weather-battened face
and dancing tongue, you charm tired simple tunes,
breathe text to life transporting minds and souls.
Unglazed by sophistry you clarify
what’s right, inspire us with pure energy,
complexity resolved to black and white.
The third and final stanza brings us back to the copper beech image, but this time terminally, using its ‘wormed inside’ as a powerful metaphor for the aggressiveness of an unspecified illness soon to claim the life of the singer:
Banjo divining like a Thompson gun,
you cast our doubts and forge an attitude:
raw undirected anger driven straight
inside the heat of things; fuse life and art
in perfect symmetry that’s understood.
The heroes you revered died sound, culled long
before their time. This tree, now a mere graze
of dust upon the ground — like you, inside,
the incubus had gorged and thrived; too brief
that span between the two great mysteries.
Once again there is a very cadent thread of sprung rhyme throughout Branson’s iambic blank verse which makes the lines sing, until the final line sounds as if it is rhyming with another end-of-line rhyme when in actual fact it isn’t (indeed, its only near-rhyme is the sprung one of ‘symmetry’ earlier in the stanza) –one might almost call this technique ‘ghost-rhyme’.
‘Heroes’, which begins with a short quote from Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Clearances’, appears to juxtapose the past Ireland of The Troubles with contemporary England of Middle East military interventionism and the more ‘peaceful’ physical competitiveness of the London 2012 Olympics, in what seems to be an embryonic polemic on the primal parallels between sport and war (reminding me of D.H. Lawrence’s aphorism, ‘that decadent mystique of athletics’, which I believe was an allusion, in part, to the spectacle of the 1933 Berlin Olympics in Fascist Germany). I say ‘embryonic’, because Branson’s adherence to his signature sonnet form restricts what might have perhaps been a more forensic dialectic stretched out over a rangier frame. However, such succinctness is what gives much of Branson’s poetry its tantalising quality, and no doubt this sense of compactness and leaving the reader somehow wanting more is perhaps in part what appeals so much to the journal editors. ‘Heroes’ is one of the most striking miniatures in this collection, beautifully phrased throughout with some faintly Keatsian images, and, as ever, a bravura array of alliteration and assonance, not to say, as well, the occasional onomatopoeic word:
Tromping to Monsalhead and back with friends,
you pause near dank cold Demonsdale beneath
a fitful crowded sky, mapping your mood
where Devil’s Scabious turns green banks haze-blue.
Parade of Heroes, the Olympic dream
fulfilled: no lives at risk from those who fight
(Afghanistan, Iraq), or those who don’t,
no bones wrong – right; no loving sacrifice.
Take Heaney’s great-grandmother, off to Mass
in her new husband’s trap for the first time,
mobbed by the Orange gang she’d left behind.
Sense neighbourly outrage, well-hurled insult,
riding the Troubles straight through here and now,
white-knuckled cobbles, blood across the page.
‘George Green’ is another exceptionally sculpted slice of iambic blank verse, and this time around we are treated to three ten-line stanzas, all wrought with gorgeous imagery. The alliteration is again mostly hung on the g-sounds of words, as signalled by the title itself –here are some significant excerpts from the poem which I most admire, the ellipses signalling where some lines have been omitted (otherwise I’d be literally quoting the entire poem), the first verse being distinctly Larkinian:
Shaped from heart wood, hard stone, no figment, flesh
and blood transformed by low-born artisans,
these fiendishly-depraved eyesores, symbols
employed to decorate high corbel, roof
boss, font, bench-end and startled misericorde,
kept fussy church officials ignorant
of what they represent, the living sap
within the gnarled dark root, those furtive eyes
above old chapel doors, the dancing men
and stag-horns peeping out from altar screens.
“The Reverend Griffith took me to his church,
showed me this curiosity in oak,
with leaves and branches sprouting from the mouth
and ears, entirely smothering the face.”
Jack in the Green’s abroad. No begging game
by lean black chimney sweeps in garish clothes,
led by a hobby horse;…
Where branches arch beyond the grazing height,
you’ll find his signature…
Those haunted eyes, gaunt cheeks and knotting brows:
there’s something present here we’ve never known
yet recognise, an energy, a fugue,…
These days George Green’s despondent, gaunt, afraid
he lacks the strength and cunning to redeem,
restore our baneful toxic fingerprint;…
Technically this poem is another Bransonian tour de force, and its un-sledge-hammered dialectic on the mute dissent and radicalism expressed by church artisans, stonemasons and craftsmen through their skilled manual work, is particularly compelling, and imaginatively depicted; while some of Branson’s most eye-catching descriptions and turns of phrase punctuate throughout: ‘startled misericorde’, ‘branches arch beyond the grazing height’, and so on. This is a poem about craftsmen composed in an appropriate display of poetic master-craftsmanship.
‘The Time the Light Went Out’ is one of the more contemporaneously polemical poems in this collection, its title punning on the well-worn trope so often clothes-pegged onto the much misunderstood and unfairly maligned Seventies (and also echoing the title to the recent Seventies-revising tome, When The Lights Went Out by Andy Beckett), but, subtly, attaching the more ominously singular phrasing of ‘Light’ to modern day ‘austerity Britain’: ‘Lids flipped, big-time; weird portents, false sunsets./ The web and mobile culled, churches swelled up –…’. The poem turns reality into part-projected, dystopian conceit, by extrapolating from current Tory-driven social miseries something more approaching a state of all-out anarchy, though not entirely extrapolated since, of course, riots hit the streets of our major cities as early as 2011, only about a year or so into Con-Dem occupation:
Cards idle, cash
points blunt – rioting: ‘All looters will be shot!’
Shops glass-eyed blanks and supermarket shelves
exposed, how people change … They hid what food
And again we get a poetic hyperbole as if perhaps to warn –and thereby hopefully preclude– any future mutations of material austerities to out-and-out vigilantism and fascistic retributions (though, in terms of currently ‘acceptable’ neo-fascist rhetoric against the poor and unemployed, the UK of 2013 is, at least attitudinally, already there): ‘…a boy was birched/ for stealing cabbage leaves; black marketers/ and deviants were scourged and strung from trees’. Indeed, Branson’s boy being ‘birched for stealing cabbage leaves’ is a polemical play on the Dickensian case of the young man caught stealing a bottle of water during the riots being sentenced to six months in prison. But the dark satire bites the most in the brilliant third and final stanza, where Branson’s polemic is at its most robust and unflinching with regards to the contemporary Tory ‘class war’ waged against the poor, unemployed and disabled, in particular, the mass evicting of tens of thousands of pauperised households through the malign and vindictive bedroom tax to outer “doughnut ghettoes”:
Folk tried to flee the towns
and cities. …
Badlands we shun today, rank with hindsight,
became death camps. Nine out of ten expired:
many gave up the ghost. …
Gamekeeper, poacher, new age traveller
survived The Cleansings; gypsies dined like kings.
Arguably here Branson is signposting just how perilously close this nation is currently coming to its own “1930s moment” through Tory social policy of benefits-stigmatisation and persecution of the poor and vulnerable –our very British homemade brand of ‘gentrified fascism’. ‘Ghosts’ is a candid but deeply touching depiction of fatigued married life, and in its exceptionally evocative descriptions of what is presumably an aging working man and smoker, reminds me of the coalminer poems of Jarrow-based poet Tom Kelly (another poet adept at the compact image, but who chooses sparser free verse forms on the whole in which to couch them); again, alliteration mostly hinges on the g-sounds of words, giving Branson’s lines a guttural quality fitting to the grittiness of subject:
The kitchen is the space she likes to dwell,
framed by the hearthside’s gilding under-glow.
Next door he taps his pipe against the grate,
refills, strikes up. She smells tobacco, hears
his old man’s cough-and-hack into the grate,
the chatter of hobnail on flag, discerns
his little dog scrape by into the hall.
There’s something of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood in tropes such as:
Some nights, the cradle ticking like a faint
heartbeat, a live time bomb inside her head,
she hears the cello. Locals tell he played
slow airs when beasts came near their time or yields
It’s suggested that possibly this aged man is a farmer, when Branson sublimely juxtaposes a fumbling attempt at making love to a tired wife with the clinical, almost gynaecological imagery of a vetinary examination:
Strong arms wrap round her waist; rough hands
expose her belly, breasts, between her thighs,
as though examining a troubled ewe….
‘One for Sorrow’ seems, if you like, one for more mainstream tastes, being rather more anecdotal and casually phrased than the majority of poems, but still proffers some typically adept descriptions, such as ‘this ancient pub, oak-boned, magpie, foot-worn’. ‘Poems ‘N’ Pints’ is a caustic satirical depiction of a typical elbows-out type of poetry reading in which most of the audience are themselves poets, all competing with one another for their moment, few of them likely to be taking very much in of the other poets’ readings but giving special attention to their own. The lines are suitably iambic, but just six beats per line (i.e. iambic trimeter):
This could be any town,
tired old committee room
up narrow jointed stairs.
This is no common muse
to prick out feelings with,
plant words for everyman:
recession, dole and debt;
Quaint dusty poetry
on bookshop shelves;…
One notes the flipping of the ‘Afghanistan, Iraq’ from ‘Heroes’ here –the mere listing of the two nations instead of any attempt to evoke them in some more symbolic form is partly justified by the fact that both country’s names are now so loaded to British ears that one almost doesn’t need to expand on them descriptively; though I would argue this is an almost bullet-pointing technique which would better only be employed once, not twice. ‘Poems ‘N’ Pints’ seems to be figuratively placing a poetry reading in a war zone, again playing polemically on the dissociated cultural contrasts of desert wars abroad and icy literary conflicts at home, or guns and pens, if you like (pens can be loaded weapons, ‘sticks and stones’ etc.), but also commenting on the evident sense of most contemporary British poets’ detachment and distance from said battlefronts in terms of their actual poetic subjects of the same period, even if, ironically, it is much more the fiscal atrocities of austerity on the home front that the majority of Britain’s established poets seem indifferent to, whereas what dearth of polemical poetry there has been in recent times has focused much more prominently on the more universal and non-ideological topic of futile wars in the Middle East:
Quaint dusty poetry
on bookshop shelves; should this
grow topical you guess
they’d move on somewhere else:
folk dancing club, life class.
Sniff teargas on the breeze:…
This lot don’t flinch
as mortar fire takes out
the local library,
oblivious to what
is really happening
outside. Stray bullets chip
the old pub front. Gaga
about the last poem read,
some woman who communed
with this small goose…
In this sense, the poem reminds me of a similar poem about a poetry soirre in a war zone in Owen Gallagher’s recent volume Tea With the Taliban (Smokestack). ‘Life Class’ is a touching vignette about a lonely septeginarian spinster attending life writing classes, presumably facilitated by the poet –in a tone faintly reminiscent of Paul McCartney’s ‘Eleanor Rigby’, Branson depicts both snapshots from the elderly lady’s autobiographical writing, and his own imagined projections of her lonely domestic routines of dotage. One trope manages to communicate something sublime without actually saying anything in particular, carried by the sprung assonantal half-rhyme of ‘on’ and ‘become’:
Eventually she shakes herself from sleep
to carry on, changed irredeemably
from who she was to what she has become.
Indeed, this portrait through recusatio, as it might be described, is symbiotically attuned to a sense of repetition, reawakening or resurrection, wherein memories which have been previously unearthed through creative writing have, like past drafts, been discarded and forgotten, only to resurface again through another writing exercise –and here one also senses a subtle play on the effects on memory from diseases such as dementia:
A long term member of her writing group
yet each September she begins afresh,
same train and station, page or two, full stop.
Blacked out, weird sirens like banshees, strange stars
appear between clear pools of fierce moonlight,
as shell fire shakes the shadow-lands beneath.
It starts at Stafford stepping from the train,
name tagged, evacuee down from the Smoke.
Eventually, about six paragraphs,
she joins a family she can’t make out
at all near Stoke. That’s where her story sticks.
The ravaged sky splits open like pie crust
and she dives in. Bad memories are cut
and spliced, words inked, till there’s mere shrapnel left…
The switch from the elderly lady in the writing class to her reminiscences of being a child evacuee in the War are particularly moving, and it’s interesting to see a hyphenated use of C.S. Lewis’s phrase ‘shadow-lands’. The poem ends on a touching depiction of an old film in which an apprehensive wife listens for the footfall of a man with a telegram about to impart her new widow-status:
…Deep in her seventies,
stalled in the Potteries, she’s in the groove
again, takes tea and coffee, washes up,
enjoys the gossip of this gang of friends.
What happens to her after she lands here
she finds impossible to call to mind.
Would it be better, do you think, or worse
than old B pictures we have conjured with:
official telegram; footfall outside
her room at night, door slowly opening …
‘The Barthomley Massacre’ appears to depict a Cavalier siege of Parliamentarians during the English Civil War; and, another of Branson’s beautifully sculpted blank verse sonnets, deserves quoting in full:
Fresh from an argument with friends, “That sort
of thing could never happen here,” a sign
glides by, headlines the total loss at one
black spot in three short years. On Slaughter Hill
you wince inside. A Chinese whispers thing:
“Sloe Tree”? Far-fetched you think, as cavaliers
turn up to cleanse the place of parliament,
high Christmastide of 1643.
This day the Valley Brook is flush with blood.
Some flee to Barthomley, claim sanctuary
inside their parish church, till they are forced
from safety when the tower is put to flame.
“Twelve men were slaughtered while one youth, his throat
sliced open, bleeds to death before my eyes.
Sweet Jesus Christ!” Four wounded, three escape
this Calvary of fruitless sacrifice.
‘Shadow Dancers’ is a duo of ornithological sonnets, both of which are scored through with some meticulously crafted descriptions –‘The Swift’ plays beautifully with alliterations mostly of b- and p-sounds:
Not here this year, lost souls, homes worn away,
handhold to fingertips, like spent pueblos.
They don’t die back or hibernate, but cruise
vast distances above the turning world.
July evenings, they side-step, scissor-kick
thin air, etch pen ‘n’ ink invisible
tattoos. Banshees, dust devils in wet suits,
anchors on skeins of rising light, they’re soon
shrill specks in your mind’s eye. Time lords, stealth craft
hot wired to while away brief summer nights,
they preen, breed on the wing, use what the wind
blows in to feed, fix nests under house eaves.
Broadcast, they silhouette the urban sky,
shape-shift, in one heartbeat, present and past.
‘The Hobby’ is equally beguiling and deftly alliterative:
Late August daylight crumbles into dust,
the cemetery behind, the marsh ahead;
above, in feeding mode, vast teeming shoals
of double sickle-shapes in silhouette.
One shadow dancer’s larger than the rest,
a lithe stealth-jet slip-streaming nimble shrill
spitfires. This deadly symbiotic dance
of insect, swift and falcon must reprise
at watering holes both here and Africa,
points in between, throughout the turning year.
A random pick, or wilful choice perhaps,
within a blink this conjuror can craft
a fallen angel broken on the rack,
a rag doll from a tumbling acrobat.
Continuing in this avian timbre, ‘The Curlew’ is one of my favourite of Branson’s sonnets, another compact gem of descriptive detail and rhythmic precision, lamenting as it does the near-extinction of the titular bird –note the brilliant deployment of sibilance throughout this excerpt:
This tearful horn-anglais refrain haunts like
old Irish pipes, high-bubbling trills as shrill
as tribal widowhood. St Beino blessed,
his sermons rescued from the waves…
These browns, burnt olives, duns add clout…
…echoes of flyblown
gunnels and consumptive back to backs;
of guttersnipe, folk old before their span –
famine, disease, debilitating dust;
of gamekeeper, mill owner, magistrate,
pawnbroker, rent collector, tallyman.
It is with a tone of despondency that Branson lists all those pestilences of industrial society and their complementary human operatives all of which are still sadly with us, while a natural creature of beauty and plangent, haunting call, teeters towards extinction –these contrasts of urban grimness and pastoral ghostliness are strongly reminiscent of William Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweep’, ‘The Garden’ and ‘London’ from Songs of Innocence and Experience. ‘Some Blessed Hope’ is a slice of polemical iambic blank verse worthy of W.H. Auden’s Thirties’ and Forties’ periods, clipped and precise yet also somehow expressive, it succeeds once again in setting an evocative urban scene, at New Year’s Eve 2012/13, the lines snagging on alliteration –particularly hard consonantal k-sounds– and sibilance:
Three quarter century’s neglect has left
this feral coppice tired and overspent.
The gate I lean against this blear-eyed New
Year’s Day is propped by barbs of rusted wire,
millennium twelve years away, your time
one hundred more, same tune, a sepia ghost.
Fearless, all frost and fire, the stormcock’s back,
lights up the swaying oak’s exposed topmast;
first salvo, flings its raking challenge in
machine-gun rote, defiant, unabashed,
then charms the darkling treescape with its themesong,
wassail, band-of-hope – all this despite
the corrugated ground, a spectral, iron
death-mask; our threadbare hospitals and roads;
the central heating on back home full blast;
e money flooding from rogue credit cards
like blood flushed from cadavered-marble slabs;
soldiers in coffins flown from far off lands.
Unusually, this is something of an expanded ‘Bransonian sonnet’, with the bonus of an extra four lines. ‘Comic Cuts Bin Laden’ is unknowingly prophetic of a subsequent and very recently exposed war atrocity allegedly committed by a soldier in Iraq against an unarmed and wounded member of the enemy, as detailed in the quote preceding the actual poem, “Killing a captive who poses no immediate threat is a crime”, Benjamin Ferencz, a prosecutor at Nuremburg’. A further note under the title elucidates an allusion in the poem: ‘Hugh Lupus, or Hugh the Wolf’ who ‘was granted most of Cheshire by his brother in law, William 1’, together with a footnote mentioning Cheshire’s ‘The Bleeding Wolf Inn, circa 1933’ –in terms of pinning down its precise meaning, this is one of Branson’s more cryptic pieces, beginning with a paraphrase from Shakespeare’s Richard III (e.g. ‘Richard is himself again’):
Himself again, pub window seat, tells how
he got laid out upon the bridle-path
behind. A wild beast bars his route. His mount
rears up and that’s the last he can recall
until he comes to here, this roadhouse inn,
listed, survivor from the golden age,
white render, Norfolk thatch, for those who could
afford a car way back. Oak panels, beams,
stone inglenook, tall story in stained glass,
fag end Pre-Raphaelite – kills wolf and spares
King John; saves Magna Carta too, drunk with
‘The Boat House’ seems to be a wedding poem, possibly one recited by the poet at the reception itself –not only Larkin and Auden, but also, in strictly stylistic terms, Wilfred Owen’s more compact sonnet form and succinct phrasing is echoed in this poem:
This is the season for it, not when fields
are iced iron-rut or frayed brown corduroy
or loud with corn; rather when bells are pitched
to tune with living things, the rising sap,
white blossom, throstle, lark, hormonal rooks.
These days the stallion’s bolted, door distressed –
For me, Branson’s crowning trope in terms of imagery in this collection is in the fields like ‘brown corduroy’ –in such acutely observed descriptive evocation contrasting the natural and the man-made, Branson demonstrates an astute poetic susceptibility to inspired simile comparable at times to Keith Douglas, but in terms of complementary lyricism, more so Alun Lewis (who in my mind was the superior of the two World War Two poets, being more emotionally affecting and tonally mature than the more greenly cerebral –though exceptionally imagistic– Douglas).
‘Crow Bait’ is one of the most image-rich of Branson’s compact sonnets, beginning with an ominous description of the black bird almost as a death-portent as it ‘prints/ its shadow on the lawn beneath your feet’. Continuing in this thanatotic vein is ‘One Step Away’, inspired by a plaque at Magpie Mine, Sheldon, Derbyshire, quoted before the poem: “In memory of Ephraim Brocklhurst, killed at Magpie Mine, Jan 20th, 1860, aged 25 years, ‘There is one step between me and death’”. The description of the now disused mine is nicely phrased and alliteratively wrought: ‘It’s more ruined bailey than abandoned mine/ viewed from afar, tall chimneypiece a tower’.
‘Retrospect’ is a curious little piece, starting off with a typically succinct depiction of Christ’s parents drawn from a famous painting, then switching in its second stanza to the distinctly secular ‘icons’ of Isaac Newton, and George Orwell –all three subjects are focused on through the prism of iconographic significance from an angle of hindsight as to their ‘obscurity’ pre-‘fame’ or ‘celebrity’, but they are very odd choices of bedfellows, and one presumes Branson is trying to juxtapose religious with scientific icons, and then by adding Orwell, whose name is so synonymous with his last novel Nineteen Eighty-Four that ‘Orwellian’ has long entered the lexicon as a term for dystopian authoritarianism, thus presumably Branson here is commenting on the ‘propaganda’ elements to how recorded history, through soteriological, secular, and artistic representation, is always an exercise in ‘reality-adjustment’ and ‘spin’ –but what ‘Retrospect’ appears to be fundamentally about is the fact that behind every ‘myth’ of the past there are ordinary ‘human’ subjects, hence his choice to start the poem on one of the least hagiographical depictions in painting of the Nativity scene:
In Breughel’s masterpiece, Joseph and spouse
arrive at Bethlehem to pay their dues,
no hint, before celebrity kicks in,
they’re more significant than other folk
out there, soused by the snow. This makes no sense
in geography nor when bowled over by
two thousand years’ remorseless spin.
The second stanza is, for me, less imaginative linguistically: ‘smug contemporaries’ is a little lame a phrase, particularly for such a phrase-rich poet as Branson, and perhaps again highlights the restrictiveness of sticking so strictly to the iambic pentameter, while, although no doubt meant slightly ironically, ‘All things are possible’ is a truism bordering on trite.
Those who knew Newton as a problem child,
had they an inkling what he’d grow to do?
Could smug contemporaries at Eton sense
the Orwell rising in young Eric Blair?
All things are possible. In later years,
no doubt, drunk with hindsight, they drown in clues.
‘Retrospect’ is one of Branson’s least successful pieces, though it still more than holds a candle to much contemporary output by other poets; but the point is, Branson can do much better than this, and one feels in this instance the arc of the dialectic here simply cries out for expansion of poetic form –fourteen lines isn’t nearly enough to either do the polemical thrust justice, or rise to the occasion poetically. But the reader only has to turn the page to be greeted by another of Branson’s supremely crafted sonnets, one of the most strikingly phrased of them all, ‘The Flax Bow’, subtitled ‘A tradition of the Cherokee Indians’, which I quote in full:
The squall you sensed tonight would bring has built
into a storm. When latches rattle like
long-dry Morse bones and windows re-invent
themselves, moulding continuously before
your eyes, melting, like ancient 45s,
dark energy you’ve sacrificed to fire,
each agonising flinch a cruel death mask,
you crave the sanctuary of calm outside.
If you could craft a bow of flax, the roof
green willow sprigs, which bend like compromise,
thread beads, rose quartz for harmony, turquoise
for trust and kindness, amethyst and mother
of pearl, stability, on strings you weave
together, seal with tears like ambergris …
This is a stunning miniature, painterly in its compact descriptions, with some luscious images that tantalise almost all our senses: ‘latches rattle like/ long-dry Morse bones and windows re-invent/ themselves, moulding continuously before/ your eyes, melting, like ancient 45s’ is a masterly trope, made more emphatic by the rhymes of ‘eyes’ and ‘45s’, while ‘the roof/ green willow sprigs, which bend like compromise’ and ‘amethyst and mother/ of pearl, stability, on strings you weave/ together, seal with tears like ambergris’ are equally compelling, cadent and lyrically rich in the best sense, worthy of Keats or Alun Lewis –the alliterative chiming of the g-sounds is again very tangible with ‘strings’ and ‘ambergris’. Technically and lyrically, this is one of the stand-out poems in this collection, a true gem which warrants future anthologising. ‘Rode Park’ is a curious little ornithological, this time observing a sparrowhawk flitting about on a cricket ground; it contains some rather quirky descriptions: ‘this paraclete,/ mad beatings of the air like bongo drums/ ignored’, while its compact ending, the last line being tucked up neatly into place, though again nicely alliterative –b-sounds this time– does have rather the effect of an image-list: ‘no bullet in the brain,/ revenger’s tragedy, bedlam, mob rule’. There’s a lovely play of sibilance and assonance at the conclusion of ‘Class War’:
…Sensing an armistice
she feints a flank attack, then suddenly,
hard face caves in, divest all artifice
(disarming), one euphoric gormless grin.
‘Hillsborough’, though obviously on an extremely important theme, and a timely piece given recent revelations surrounding the ‘publicity’, or rather, fabricated ‘version’ of the tragic event of 1989, is for me a little throwaway in terms of its sing-song structure, replete with repeated choruses, none of which really adds much to the subject that hasn’t been said before, and little of which plays to Branson’s strengths as a poet. Branson’s poetry is sufficiently cadent due to its frequent use of iambic meter, so I feel this use of slightly irregular iambic lines with rhyme-endings, song lyric-like, is a stylistic ‘experiment’ which actually, if anything, feels more pedestrian than Branson’s more typical metier. ‘Fox Tor Mires’, depicting Great Grimpen Mire, setting for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles, is another bravura blank verse sonnet (though where Branson allows himself the luxury of irregular meter) with Branson’s signature short clause phrases, almost staccato at times, and contains some typically rich imagery:
Green counterpane palpates,
seductive, soft as eider down beneath
your feet. Alone, both limbs shin-deep in icecold
peat, you’re ancient mummery…
This sonnet has something of the thanatotic metaphysical conceit of the sonnets of John Donne, ending: ‘Ghost virals we can’t shake inoculate,/ draw out death’s sting, shroud darkness in white light’. ‘Narrow Boats at Road Heath Rise’ juxtaposes the sight of barges tied to the sides of canals with that of corals of wagons in cowboy films:
…proud ring a roses livery, war paint,
throat-lozenge shapes, like coffins in a plague.
sterns list where tethered heavy-horses strain;
bows nodding-donkey ride, tease air for sign
of hostiles, like old wagon-trains in films.
It’s handy for the all day shop and pub,
next lock. No space to form a circle though;
exposed to locals on the towpath side
who wander by with dogs or fishing looks.
‘Folk Rising’ is a wistful nostalgia piece on the radical British folk revival of the Sixties and Seventies, dedicated to Bert Lloyd and Ewan McColl, the latter having arranged and performed much of the compositions which punctuated the hugely absorbing series of radio social documentaries on the cultures and traditions of the various British proletarian trades, such as coal mining and train driving; this poem appears to be Branson’s homage to a now sadly bygone revivalism in working-class culture and consciousness, which also infiltrated, for a time up until the cusp of the Eighties, popular music too –hence the many allusions to slogans –‘Ban the Bomb!’– and songs of the period throughout. Having witnessed Branson actually singing some of his poems at a poetry reading, I can vouch for the evident vein of folkloric inflection in his oeuvre, and, indeed, for his good ear for tone and harmony. The second and final stanza is particularly resonant:
It couldn’t last. The moguls changed their tune,
signed likely lads, stars in their eyes; folk rock
drowned out the words. Gone underground, down-sized
yet in rude health - until next time, so keep
it to yourself; new songs to tell it like
it is when roused by breach of commonwealth.
“Just You Wait and See” is another nostalgia piece, the title quoted from the famous song ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ (as famously performed by Vera Lynn), and is preceded by another ornithological quote: ‘Some species of long-distance spring migrants are declining in numbers at an accelerating, possibly unsustainable, rate’. The imagery here focuses on stars in the night sky, and there’s a curious nod to the Hopi Indians, whom, among other singular cultural traditions, used to believe that celestial powers were absorbed into their heads via holes in the skulls:
nor sleeping ones the Hopi knew,
half ours, alternative far worse, they chase
the tilt of Earth and charm us with their voice
As is often the case with Branson, there is a faintly dystopian flavour to the poem as it projects anxieties as to some apocalyptic future:
What if they don’t turn up, flycatcher, swift,
warbler and turtle dove, those cuckoos in
‘The Times,' that nightingale in Berkeley Square?
Will spring go missing too?
‘Scouse Jack’ appears to depict an ‘elocuted’ Liverpudlian friend of the poet’s, but later in the poem, this figure also serves as a personification of the unique Liverpudlian accent and character, a bracketed explanation of the term ‘Scouse’ as ‘a Liverpool stew’ very much symbiotic with the impression of a ‘stew’ of influences which themselves concoct the inscrutable distinctiveness of the natives of this distinctly Catholic-centric North-West city –the unique Scouse accent itself being mixed from the melting-pot of Irish, Welsh and Lancastrian accentual ingredients. Branson hits the nub of the Liverpudlian personality by drawing on the dockside city’s rich heritage of imported influences:
An inner émigré, he’s hard to pin,
urbane, that razor wit, well-honed in youth,
reined back and kindly-used. Rare time when drink
cuts in, just two or three, shield brows relent,
shy scamp again, deep furrows harrowed out.
Salt twang he ditched, when elocution blitzed
at grammar school, returns “Address unknown”;
vowels broaden, consonants go walkabout.
Take stock of Saxon, Viking, Norman, Celt,
sea gypsy, refugee, bondman and slave,
scran hostel, hovel, bawdy, drinking dive,
constituents of rabid enterprise,
add spice from Orient and Africa,
rich mix to tease and whet the appetite.
‘Mis-En-Scène’ is a sequence of five Bransonian sonnets, iambic pentameter blank verse with mostly assonantal end-line half-rhymes; each poem appears to describe castles, abbeys and cathedrals form various parts of the country, Wells, Bath, Coventry, Lichfield in Staffordshire, and Salisbury, and the language is suitably picturesque. At the beginning of the first poem, ‘Tomb Effigy, Wells’, we get a fascinating piece of architectural history: ‘Large cracks began to appear in the tower structure. In fear of a total collapse, several attempts at internal strengthening and buttressing were made, until the famous ‘scissor arches’ were put in place by master mason William Joy between 1338 & 1348’, followed by a gloriously tangible description of the object in question, with some breathtaking use of alliteration, particularly on the c-sounds, and sibilance:
Chased out of rock laid down in salt lagoons,
…you rest here on
your crib of self-indulgences, paid for,
fair copy of what’s rotted underneath.
This leprous nose is flattened out, the stone
dissolving, cartilage, bone congealed like wax,
the Silent Scream played on a misericord
Is it good luck to rub your ghost facade,
a rite to keep believers safe from spells,
the charm of gravity, collapsing walls,
tamed here by master mason’s scissor trick,
until the early warning trumpet calls?
‘Bath Abbey’, the second poem, is also beautifully sculpted with description throughout:
Round here, even the scroungers are well-heeled
and know it’s not polite to poop on folk
who take their ease at pavement coffee bars,
corralled, led by the credit card. Gulls strut
like troubadours, sleek pigeons dance between
packed chairs and tables, standing legs, tired feet.
And from the tall west frontage of the church,
in your mind’s eye, God gazes down, benign,
above the scant remains of angels long
since ill defined, and saints with bare-faced flaws,
blunt-nosed, expressionless and disinclined.
‘Hunter’s Moon’, the third, subtitled ‘Cathedral of St Michael, Coventry, November 14th, 1940’, is so beautifully described that it deserves almost full excerpting:
The bulldog breed don’t beat retreat, to view
toy town, close weave of hearth and industry,
emblazoned by a quisling Palmer sky.
Berlin gets blitzed, its people terrorised.
…massed thunderheads and balls of light,
hard raining hell on earth for anti Christ.
A dragon sucking in cold air to feed
itself, the old place glows white hot. New church
is raised, a garden made, the cross of nails,
‘Father forgive.' Ruined walls retained, lest we
‘The Ladies of the Vale’, the fourth, is my favourite, ironically juxtaposing as it does, in a compact rift on the English Civil War of the 1640s, the vestigial scars of the Roundhead desecration on what was presumably a Laudian church during the English Revolution, and the Cromwellian decapitation of the Monarchy, with the Ruritanian spectacle of street-bunting celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations of July 2012:
Dark Ladies of the Vale command the view,
in widows’ weeds, just like when Parliament
lay siege, the reek of powder on the breeze,
the talk of sorcery and regicide
Pass bunting Jubilee, red, white and blue,
criss-crossing narrowed sky like razor wire.
See saints and angels soar like kittiwakes
west face, three spires severe as witches hats,
space acrobats, defying gravity
on wing and prayer. Inside, all reliquary
defiled, carved heads lack noses, puritan
distaste for ornament, whole site ransacked.
This miniature reads almost like a distilled versification of Christopher Hill. Finally the fifth poem, ‘The Spire’, a slice of verse-ventriloquism through the spectre of John Constable as he paints Salisbury Cathedral, is, once again, sharply descriptive and strikingly aphoristic:
This painting was commissioned by my friend,
John Fisher. See him with his wife beneath
these elms, the meadows drained, church settled where
the deer gave up the ghost, as legend tells.
There is no easy way to paint a pure
and unaffected scene, movement and light,
for landscape alters as the weather does.
rainbow behind, dark thunderhead on high.
‘Essere Amata Amando’ is one of the most lyrically well-formed and musical of Branson’s sonnets, and innovates in being, I think, the only one which actually ends on a rhyming couplet; it starts with the quote “To love and to be loved’, Alice Douglas-Pennant, Penrhyn Castle, 1880’, and has something of Christina Rossetti’s haunting ‘Remember’ about it –here it is in full:
I gaze down from my ivied tower room
on lean-to greenhouses and potting sheds,
walled garden where we met, etch words of love
here on this diamond page of leaded glass.
Childhood charmed us invisible, times when
the governess was occupied, young girl
and keeper’s son. And nothing changed till you
were old enough to join the outside staff
and I was on the cusp of womanhood.
Eyes and ears everywhere, silent as wraiths,
the housemaids come and go, unseen, between
two worlds, this and the one below the stairs
where gossip brewed. The butler passed it on.
Now I’ve been banished here and you have gone.
‘The Spirit Mask’ seems almost a kind of homage to magical realist novelist Angela Carter, replete with titular allusion to her most famous (and later filmed) short story, The Company of Wolves, and to its main source of inspiration, Little Red Riding Hood (the other being lycanthropic folklore):
Before dawn dark, beyond the kissing gate,
no trace of human enterprise, year’s edge
and seasonably cold, big moon hoodwinked,
the wood’s re-wilding at flood tide. Alone,
anything’s possible, hair trigger primed.
You conjure up the company of wolves,
soundscape all eyes. Words come to mind but not
tall stories, shepherds’ lore, Red Riding Hood.
Too soon, the darkness draining like a halfblocked
waste, they melt away like smoke. As light
re-civilises things, with nature trained
on gibbet, poison, snare and gun, recall
men in wolf heads, dead outlaws posed by ghosts
of bounty men, snug in your sheepskin coat.
This is yet another deftly sculpted, richly phrased sonnet, and, perhaps fittingly, concludes this collection with a colouristic echo to the volume’s title.
Such is the sheer painstaking craftsmanship of much of Branson’s poetry that it felt only respectful to catalogue what to me were the stand-out poems –which are, in fact, the good majority of the collection– with significant excerpts intended to demonstrate to readers just how well-honed are Branson’s prosodic skills, and how exceptional they are at a time when much contemporary poetry is considerably less meticulous in its composition, more prosaically phrased, less linguistically engaged (or engaging), and too often gratingly casualised in tone. Branson’s poems are, to my mind, qualitatively the pinnacle of supplemental verse –but their surefootedness of form, image-compactness, and metrical discipline rarely curtail their richly poetic aphoristic qualities –and, taken together, Branson’s finely honed skills as a poet make for some of the most descriptively striking and visually attractive (in terms of shape on the page) poetry I have read in some time. If I have any qualms at all, it is simply that I would like to see some further, more expansive breakings with what for Branson is clearly, in the main, a certain ‘comfort zone’ of blank verse iambic pentameter sonnets –though, having said that, so beautifully composed are these Bransonian sonnets that I also crave to read some more.
Branson has undoubtedly found his ‘voice’ now, has proven his supreme craftsmanship as a miniaturist poet; all that now remains for him is to, if he wishes, show his gifts in more expansive, looser forms, should the impulsion spring upon him. Lapwing has both done him much justice with this handsome production as it has also procured for itself something of a coup: Red Hill is one of the most consistently strong and richly formed collections of recent times, and, most crucially of all, the vast majority of its contents, particularly the lusciously sculpted sonnets, are more than deserving of enshrining in book form since they simply scream out to be re-read and savoured several times over. This collection comes highly recommended by The Recusant –it really is worth purchasing and treasuring for many years to come, as, bluntly, very few poets practising today equal Branson’s sheer artisan-like craftsmanship at iambic blank verse.
Click here to read the review of Alexis Lykiard
Alan Morrison © 2013