Thursday, 08 February 2024 20:37

Dwell Time, by Tom Branfoot

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Dwell Time, by Tom Branfoot

Introduction to 'Dwell Time' by Tom Branfoot, Poet in Residence at Manchester Cathedral – see attached pdf

By Fran Lock

The idea of 'dwelling' as homely habitation is a relatively modern one. In Old English 'dwellan' is not to inhabit, but to mislead, to lead astray. By the Middle Ages, this sense of the word had skewed, it came to mean to linger lost, to delay, to doubt, to tarry. There are notions of folly and obscurity in it. It's a vexed word for a vexed condition, and an apt title for a poem that both strays and halts across thresholds of habitation: bodily, political, psychic, and ecological.

From the first stanza the poem uses the buried valences of words to interrogate the hidden violence of mundane economic practice. While 'rent' is the money due to landlords, it is also to 'pull to pieces, lacerate, wrench'. This latter meaning exists in a profound causal relationship to the former; haunts and inhabits it. The consequence of rent is rending. How is the speaker to write, or indeed to live, to constitute a sense of self, when they have no place, no centre and no substance? The poem demands that we think about that; that  precarity refers not merely to our status in the “job market”, our place on the “property ladder”, but to our very purchase on the real. We are accustomed to thinking about trauma as a violent event that shatters time itself into wounded multiplicities. But supposing trauma were not an event, but a process? Supposing that process was capitalism? Supposing that process was class? Branfoot's poem leads us (astray) into a space of acute emotional dismemberment; into the trauma-time of late capitalist habitation.

Disorientation and dislocation

Accordingly, the poem takes risks with continuity, lineation, structure, syntax, and punctuation, performing the very disruption it describes: 'a place/  to live there is a wound with world lodged in it'. Here, the lack of punctuation signals to disorientation, both the speaker's and our own. More than this, it gives us a deeper dislocation in (and of) the world, which itself is 'lodged' – both stuck and precariously habituated – inside the all-encompassing wound. This notion of the wound feels significant: the poem does not merely present us with an itemised list of damages – or 'wounds' plural – dealt to psyches, bodies or biospheres from the outside. No. Instead we are inside the wound. It is a total reality in which are equally enmeshed and equally complicit.

There is a disturbing interplay between the second and third stanza. In the second, the speaker begins an anxious interrogative of their own value-form: what they ought to have 'done', what they do and do not 'deserve,' a list including but not limited to a home, a body, a job, care, physical and mental health. This stanza gives us capitalism's 'psychopathy of worth': the urgent necessity and absolute impossibility of 'feeling valued' in a society that endlessly accounts for value on purely instrumental terms. These fucked metrics form a closed circuit, an imaginative (as well as physical, emotional, and literal) colonisation; they bleed across the blank space of the page into the left-lineated downtime of the speaker's resting, dreaming life. In this stanza, hallucinatory lyric lines are viciously intercut by the language and effects of disaster capitalism, so that 'mouth wood sorrel-wet from moon-licking during/ a heatwave' and 'trade the human for hazel, siskin and long dappled grass' sit uneasily beside 'the wheels of commerce', 'agribusiness', 'rent and wildfires', each a kind of commonplace, the dull percussive thud of daily life, rendered all the more depressing for the sinuous and sensual lyric flex they interrupt. In this stanza we are reminded that the exact opposite of 'pilgrim' is 'worker', an identity that leaves both wandering and wondering painfully curtailed.

This third stanza stayed with me. I am haunted by the speaker's futile attempts to 'close the blinds' on war and other 'depredations'; where the invasion and occupation of land entails a secondary invasion and occupation – of attention, an echo and an after-burn of violence. The poem shows us how are pendulum swings between states of exhaustion and recovery, where work (and money) has become the limit and the definition of our reality. We experience this reality as waves of force, inundated and overwhelmed. It has become something that happens to us, something we shrink from, seek to shut out, are unable to either withstand nor to change.

Pollen, pollutants and pesticides

Moving into the fourth stanza we come to understand that the speaker's body is the first (perhaps best) barometer of this wrongness. By this point it has been variously hungover, nauseous, allergic and vomiting. This is an appropriately dense stanza. It gives us an attention not merely distracted but congested: 'aviaries' are downloaded into phones. We might assume that this is a reference to the social media platform formally known as Twitter, but the line nonetheless supplies us with an irresistible image of technologically mediated nature, flattened and condensed into morsels of content. Meanwhile, abused and distressed nature wreaks vengeful havocs on the body that vomits up 'a hurricane of pollen', registering (without explicitly acknowledging) pollutants, pesticides, and seasons out of whack. This stanza opens strangely, with 'two men' who 'sit with an ashtray/ the size of a plate/ and an ecological disaster between them'. This image of excess queasily unites the idea of carcinogens with that of food, and reminds us that under capitalism it is perfectly possible to be nourished and sickened by the same source. The gigantic ashtray also makes the smoke-congested lung metonymic for the cinerary sky of fume-choked or burning England. If nothing else, it is proof that our coping mechanisms are killing us.

Something else that struck me about this stanza was that the speaker's journey was not in any sense idle. They are offered no place of pause or reprieve outside the demands of the capitalist system. Technologies vie for their/ our attention, and the presence of revenue inspectors constantly re-tune our thoughts towards money. The speaker is crushed into their routine: 'same/ seat, at the same time/ every day on my commute/ fixed as a data point/ the conductor accosts my living'. The echo here of 'cost of living' – as in the hoary old “cost of living crisis” – is sharp, an ambient hum of anxiety that embeds itself in language.

The fifth stanza mis-sequences time. It invites us to imagine a collapse, where the detritus of  neoliberal culture become the relics and the evidence by which the future (although we are left in some doubt as to what future) will accuse us. This stanza seems to zero-in on what generations of indigenous people have always already known: the disaster has happened, this is the aftermath, the wreckage. Capitalism was and is the apocalypse. This is a difficult stanza, moving between particular and personal grief, and the strange future-conditional grief of ecological devastation so often experienced by those in the West.  There is also a grief not for life but for life-ways, the pain that comes from inhabiting the 'aftermath of free will', a destruction so total that it has foreclosed even the possibility of imagining an otherwise. Here 'friends' are 'fossilised in debt'. This is a brutal line. It concretises both the immobilising nature of poverty, and its potential lethality, linking it to notions of extinction and to deep, immovable time. The speaker is depressed, and confides that they wish to 'rot in bed' most days. A sane response, and not merely an apathetic one, but one that contains a yearning to re-enter the slow-time of nature, to rejoin the nonhuman commons by any means – any process – necessary, up to and including that of decay. To 'fossilise' something is to preserve it, trap its course. To 'rot' is to compost down amongst a teeming multitude. There is an idea of healing in it, and connection. How can we grieve if we are stuck in the moment of trauma? Arrested and suspended inside an endlessly repeating now?

Hangovers, houses and hurricanes

In the sixth and final stanza images from the preceding stanzas return but re(dis)ordered so that hangovers, aviaries, houses and hurricanes are whirled together, performing both the skewed and slipping time of trauma, and the endless, arbitrary stream of undifferentiated data that marks our tech-dependent cultural moment. It is striking that at the start of the stanza the speaker's 'work-issued therapist links/ nausea and vomiting to a traumatic/ event a few mothers ago'. The speaker goes on to suggest that the therapist is wrong: suppose their malaise were not neatly specific but sprawlingly general? An amorphous ecological and economic anxiety, rooted in 'fiscal deviance/ plastic haunting my digestive tract' and generating its own rebellious symptomatology.  The body, of course, remembers what capitalism does its best to suppress: that we are nature, and the harms inflicted against nature therefore inflict ourselves.

This final stanza also nails capitalism's creepy privatisation of “care”. The reader can't help but feel that 'work-issued therapist' ought to be a contradiction in terms. It's a phrase that transforms the therapeutic encounter into a purely instrumental one, and the therapist themselves into a tool. The end goal of 'work-issued' therapy is not health but functionality: for the speaker to operate successfully as a productive worker, model citizen, and consumer subject. If the job of therapy is to allow us to accept an intolerable, life-denying situation; to frame as individual pathologies, social and political problems, then is it worthy of the name?

More to the point, what else is there? How should we dwell within the now that capitalism has produced, a place we can neither deny nor accept? This poem does not offer any easy answers to this question, but it does offer us a space in which to sit with unease they generate. The poem is also a place, and it invites us to be with/ within it.

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Read 365 times Last modified on Thursday, 08 February 2024 21:00
Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.