Cream cover with green lines in a simple pattern, green and black lettering Coping Stones, Richie McCaffery

Fras Publications, 2021*    £8.00

Building materials

Richie McCaffery can’t keep bricks, tiles, stones, paving — all that solid and textured stuff — out of his poems. I’ve always liked this in his work and the way physical materials are a metaphor for how relationships are built, how their foundations are secured, how they are maintained. The fabric of daily lives, and the lives that are taking place, are inseparable.

Even the title poem, Coping Stones, works at two levels. At the material level there are stones — the ‘hand-hewn 18th century masonry / capping tall sandstone walls’ that we meet in the opening stanza. But material can be re-used, as the second stanza reminds us, with ‘the foundations/ and crypt of a medieval church / built from the rubble of a Roman temple.’ It’s a type of creative re-cycling, the past handing on its material self to the present.

The solid statements of the first two stanzas shift into the conditional as the poem becomes personal —

So it stands to reason that should
these high walls fall, we could salvage
the top stonework to make a home

where we would weather it out,
nothing could get to us
in our dwelling of coping stones.

The second meaning of ‘coping’ slips in here. In the past year it’s a word that’s cropped up more often — coping mechanisms, coping strategies; a way of surviving quietly, of getting through difficult times. Holding to the past is one way, and these poems have a wide range of material examples. There’s ‘a fraying / Durham quilt that my ancestors made’ ( ‘Heat’), a collection of LPs that ‘remind / me of a man forgotten by everyone else’ ( ‘Abbey’), notebooks with rusty staples, left over from school days (‘Vocabulary’).

But it’s how McCaffery uses the detail of buildings I keep returning to. In ‘Anchor’ he sees in a curl of hair the first letter of Stef (his wife’s name) and then

how you sometimes see that shape
on the side of old buildings, a wall anchor
securing a steel beam that gives a spine
to a weak edifice and how you in your way
go through my life, doing the same.

Simultaneously solid and delicate, this is a set of well-built poems.

D A Prince