Explosives Licence, Jonathan Totman
Templar Poetry, 2018 £6.00
There is interesting tension in the title of this pamphlet and it permeates the whole collection.
‘Is there anything you want to ask me / before we go in?’ the narrator is asked in the title poem as his father undoes the ‘three locks to the shed.’ The reader, as well as the questioned ten-year-old, is put on guard. The child laughs, but checks his pockets ‘for matches I know aren’t there’, before entering a shed full of fireworks — fireworks that have poetic names but are, nevertheless, ‘mortar tubes’ and ‘brown paper-wrapped shells’. The poem continues:
I’ve seen you on show night:
nervy, quiet, ducking under
yellow tape in a high-vis jacket,
fading to a figure with a spark.
Later, you show me how to fuse up
rockets at the dining room table
This last image is explored in ‘Veteran’, a powerful poem about a wife coping with the various moods of her husband, who evidently suffers from PTSD:
She is diplomat here, in the war-torn city
of his mind [ … ]
[ … ] that man who looks right through her
and hates the smell of burning meat.
The world around us can’t always be relied upon either. In ‘Ghost’ the Fenland landscape is inhabited by its own spectre, regretting what man has done to it. Elsewhere, weather is all that remains in a world that has slipped inexorably into silence.
The overall tone of the collection is positive, however, thanks to familial love. ‘Mushroom Season’, about the funeral of the poet’s father, ends:
Walk with me Dad,
look after the knife.
ferns and beech trees,
the barbed-wire fence.
And there are tender poems about becoming a father. I particularly like ‘Expecting’ in which ‘a pair of tights, gusted from the line’ prompts Totman to ‘think of / that little life, flexing its shoots of limb: / all those clothes to be worn, the picking up to come.’
He closes with another fireworks display, a relaxed family one this time, and the launching of a naughty sky lantern:
[ … ] a little tug
to say this thing will fly.