the clearing, Luke ThompsonBook jacket portrait and dark grey. You can just read the title and the name of poet and illustrator at the bottom. They are black and very small. But you see the birds immediately, black silhouettes tumbling down from the top, faded at first and then getting bigger and blacker by the middle of the page. (in the copy I have, which is not the one shown here, the birds disappear off to the top right corner).

illustrations by Mairead Dunne

Atlantic Press, 2016   £10.00

If you go down to the woods today

This small grey pamphlet, a little smaller (and more subtle) than A5 in size, won the Michael Marks Illustration Award in 2016. It is a beautiful thing.

It is also a debut publication for Luke Thompson – and what a way to arrive! Each copy is unique, with the birds on the cover hand stamped by Mairead Dunne – so you really ‘get’ the sense of individuality from the outset. The visual message of the design underpins the topic. The ‘clearing’ is the big space on the front jacket – and there are the birds moving across it. Those birds fly right through the internal pages; many species, many calls.

So you read on: knowing you’re in woods with birds, and bird sounds, and darkness. There’s a sense of something ominous: it’s in the grey of the cover, then the black (or possibly midnight blue) flyleaves, and in the illustrated pages, which incorporate large dark expanses, blurred and sometimes slightly threatening images, and eerie spots of light.

The first piece of text begins

in the woods
a black unbodied terror

There’s something riveting about this, especially with the strange, luminous page opposite. It’s like the start of a horror film. You tip-toe inside, and as you progress, the spell holds.

The illustration is powerful. I liked the text too, though I found the size of font a little small for my aging eyes. This may partly explain why my favourite spreads are the ones where the text is most minimal and also – because of the huge white space around it – most easy to read. But more than this, these short fragments seemed to me to connect most completely and effectively with the facing illustration. In some the poetic line leans right across to the illustration opposite, like someone stretching out a hand. For example, ‘the severed laugh of an unbound yaffle mocks the grass’ reaches out to a long thin twig or branch, possibly extended across the moon – a spot of light anyway. Each (the line of text, and the twig) almost bisects its page. I like the jauntiness of the line here too: there’s mischief in that ‘severed laugh’, not taking its own black art too seriously.

This whole pamphlet seems to me to take a dark delight in itself, and to relish its own creepiness. You go into the 'unbodied terror' and come out shiveringly and brilliantly alive.

Helena Nelson