Tuesday 22 June 2021

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "Judder Men" by Ben Bransfield

It could be argued all poems reveal an obsession with time. The form itself demands something else of the writer: a sort of shorthand or sketching ability over the usual compulsion to provide readers with a full, intimate study of a particular setting, character or situation. Poems have to be compact, immediately engaging - the voice, everything. It is not that good verse does not require a great deal of time to craft, but even the heavily revised and redrafted can be read aloud in a few minutes, which makes them of the moment: of the present. Many of the poems in Bransfield’s collection deal with the power of the mind to recreate times past, as the author mines his own memories in search of people, settings, even crimes, and, in the process, this allows him to deliberate on how verse itself has the power to capture a memory, before it disappears or changes entirely. 

In fact, many of the poems in Judder Men can be likened to framed photographs, or portraits, that reveal intimate portraits of each subject. In the opener, 'Go Kart,' Bransfield writes ‘To go faster we had to share, to bolt together’ and one gets the impression the poet is talking as much about the shared experience of writer and reader, as he is describing the propulsion of a child’s go-kart. Likewise, in 'Uncle David,' 'Nan and Grandad’s,' 'Joe' and 'Elizabeth Crescent,' the reader is presented with everyday scenes that are immediately recognisable as those belonging to working-class life, the poet detailing the joy of incidental moments that make up much of lived experience: ‘Corned beef. Silverskin onion juice sluiced from the jar into mash,’ or family members crowding around a ‘mounted gas fire’ beneath a ‘galaxy of artex.’ As humorous as some of these portraits are, they are never nostalgic. In many ways, they act as warnings for us all to savour the simple pleasures that can be gained from being around other people, as if time itself was ‘wax [which] wept its way down our still burning candles.’ 

That said, Bransfield is equally at home exploring the borderland between the real and the imagined and these poems provide some of the collection’s standout moments. In 'The Twangers,' the poet re-visits a myth his father once told him, of menacing ‘judder men’ who live in the ‘tight brass coils’ on the backs of doors to stop them hitting walls. These nightmarish creatures are summoned by a ‘quivering call’ and emerge from ‘the fluid of the eye’ to torment the young boy. In poems like this, as well as many others across the collection, Bransfield’s eye favours the short, piercing image that conveys a specific moment or feeling – in this case peril, or dread. Elsewhere, 'A Rag Man' takes a single phrase and spins it out into its multiple forms, giving the whole poem a trance-like musicality, especially if read aloud: ‘it is vain: aim an’ spit / the man spears in a visit / ears in the van: a pain mist ears in the van: a stain map.’ By contrast, in 'Lamphrey' – one of several poems that seems to give more than a nod to the likes of Hughes and Heaney – Bransfield likens himself to the mysterious creature in order to reflect on the impotence of human experience: ‘it is not acceptable to sludge along the river’s bed / like a severed penis or an unfried length of black pudding,’ even daring himself to ‘deflate down the plug-hole / boneless, nothing more than muscle memory.’ It is this very ability to lose himself and us, between past and present, day and night, the everyday and the fantastical, that gives this whole collection its own peculiar beauty and makes Bransfield’s achievement both timely and timeless.  

About the reviewer
Paul Taylor-McCartney is a doctoral researcher with Leicester University, following a part-time PhD in Creative Writing. His research interests include dystopian studies, children’s literature and initial teacher education. His poetry, short fiction and academic articles have appeared in a range of notable UK and international publications including Aesthetica, The Birmingham Journal of Language and Literature, Education in Practice (National Association of Writers in Education), Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine and Dyst: A Literary Journal. He lives and works in Cornwall.

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