Peter Branson describes his third collection as his ‘best yet’. It is hard to disagree. The poet and songwriter riffs on his familiar themes – a Catholic childhood in The Potteries, the natural world, social injustice – with a clarity of craft and diction that makes the whole collection thrum. The rhythm of fiddle and bodhran throbs through his political ballads and tributes to folk musicians, but there is far more here than fol-de-rol and derry derry down. From Peterloo to the murder of Jo Cox MP and the Manchester Arena bombing, the poems vibrate with righteous anger.
Branson is a keen observer of the natural world. A sequence of ten poems about bird species in decline forms the core of the collection. Evocative regional nicknames add depth and colour – ‘Goatsucker’, nightjar, ‘Sky Dancer’, the hen harrier, ‘Mizzly Dick’, the mistle thrush. The sequence combines sharply observed detail with social comment. These are no text-book observations, Branson has clearly watched all these birds, ‘scarecrow-still’, in flight, at rest or feeding:
One moment it’s
the hobby, slicing through dense crowds of swifts
like ticker-tape (‘Goatsuckers’).
The poet’s father hoisted him ‘waist-high’ to peer into a ‘throstle’s nest’ and he was ‘drawn for life’ (‘The Early Bird’). There are painful reminiscences of boyhood nest raids and capturing newts, ‘Twin pocket dinosaurs, jam jarred’ (‘Newts’). A note of authentic, lived experience chimes through the collection with a strong sense of conviction in the political squibs. Add to that striking imagery and an ear for a musical phrase and what emerges is a body of work that resonates long in the memory – ‘a crow bleeds like a cursor/left to right across the screen’ (‘Taking One for the Team’).
Reader of Branson’s previous collections, Red Hill (2013) and Hawk Rising (2016), both from Lapwing, and those who have heard him sing or read live, will find little new thematically but plenty to admire in terms of craft and conviction. Newcomers to Branson’s verse will encounter verse that is muscular, robust and worthy of repeated reading.
Philip Williams © 2021