Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

HappenStance Press, 2012.  £4.00

Reviewed by D A Prince, George Simmers and Ross Kightly

D A Prince:
In his confident opening poem ‘The Professional’, McCaffery goes to the heart of this collection with its probing of uncertainty, imbalance and the fragility of life. So to describe it as ‘confident’ may sound contradictory, but it’s not. Only a poet with great confidence in his control of words, in his ability to match emotional tone precisely to image, while trusting his intuition for how the poems will fit together and inform each other, would have the sureness to open with

You ask what I do for a living
and I don’t think I can say.

It’s the muted qualification of “I don’t think” that held me; then the word “living” suddenly took on greater significance, becoming almost metaphysical. By the end, the narrator says: “I specialise/ in subtle, half-bearable damage”. I don’t think I can say what is meant by “living” either, but I knew what it felt like: wary, self-questioning, tentative, and intelligent.

Although the running image of porcelain/china is already established in this opening poem, it’s not until the title poem (roughly a quarter of the way in) that a key connection with family life becomes fully evident. Writing of his mother, who entered the world as “a bundle of birth” left on a stranger’s doorstep, McCaffery describes her as “mad as mercury’, and then—

She said being pregnant
was like spinning a bone-china plate
on the thinnest stick inside you—

breakages were bound to occur.

This takes us back to the “damage” of the opening poem, where McCaffery first introduced the image of the teacup, the “faint hairline crack”—even the different sounds china can make. In ‘Two spoons’ he hears the sound of a teaspoon as “the tiny school bell of steel/ on china”—an image to cherish. He knows how details accumulate, how familiar objects work in building up identity. In ‘The Collector’ he realises how “Things are starting to amount to a life. As a child/ I collected Star War figures and stamps.”

Living? Life? He keeps circling the question but never trying to force an answer. The final stanza of this poem recognises collecting for the rite of passage it was—

Decluttering at sixteen was my therapy.
The urge to collect seemed a need back then
to hold on to what’s already lost.

The idea of loss runs through these poems, too, and it’s the measure of McCaffery’s skill that he can keep so many ideas in play with such an apparently light touch. The final poem, ‘7 Pudden Wynd’, starts by describing a house where the stone escutcheon, dated 1892, has been put in upside down but the poet goes on to imagine the odder happenings within the walls, until—

Nothing is ever lost at this bat-eyed address

and I can’t decide from the outside
whether it’s a blessing or a curse to never
be able to lose something, or someone.

Here it is again: his self-questioning, his attempt to tease out an answer that lies beyond his reach, and his confidence in letting the collection end on this uncertainty. Yet his confidence has no outward showy-ness, just a precision with language that tries to negotiate and confront the indefinable—and the honesty to set this down. Do I need to tell you that I liked this, very much?

 

George Simmers:
Rust, detritus, the lost, the misplaced. Richie McCaffery finds poetry in the neglected, the thrown aside, the unwanted. In his cutlery drawer, he unexpectedly finds “a caffeine-painted teaspoon/ marked ‘hospital property’ ”, and imagines what its history might be—“a pale insomniac hand/ in a waiting room absently slipping/ this spoon in a pocket”. It is “scary to think the number of cups/ of time-wasting tea this spoon/ stirred”. He finishes by joining the community of those who have drunk tea in stressful situations:

I clutch the warmth both-handedly
and sip away at the seas between us.

The poet’s identification with the lost and thrown away is keenest in the poems about his family:

When my mother arrived,
no one would sign for her,
left out like a parcel
on a stranger’s doorstep.

In the collection’s title poem, his mother tells him that he was not her first born, but that

being pregnant
was like spinning a bone-china plate
on the thinnest stick inside you—

breakages were bound to occur.

Like a sturdy “white canteen saucer” the poet is one of the survivors. Nevertheless, a sense of human fragility is there throughout these poems.

McCaffery has an eye for detail and a gift for the unspectacular (but telling) turn of phrase. A poem like ‘Still’ precisely captures a small experience. His toddler nephew is frightened by the sight of a dead mouse, and the “composure of its fur unnerved even me”. This line gives (to me at least) the shock of recognition. Yes, it is exactly the composure, the still perfection, of the dead that can be so uncanny and disturbing. Richie McCaffery is a real poet.

 


Ross Kightly:

One school of thought about poetry believes that what comes in the middle of a poem may be forgiven numerous shortcomings if only the beginning and end of a poem are excellent.

Many of McCaffery's poems could be forgiven much inner flab, slobber and blubber if this criterion were rigorously applied, as for instance:

Yesterday was Judgement Day
[ . . . ]
as raindrops danced like sperm on the window.

They found her faux-leather handbag first

[ . . . ]
The tide was turning, they needed the boat

Virtually any of the 23 poems here could be used to test the hypothesis.

However, and fortunately for those numerous readers of poetry who are not members of this school of criticism, there is no need for the criterion to apply at all. 'Dedication' is worth quoting in its entirety as illustration:

In an underground copy
of Lady Chatterley's Lover
a shaky plum inscription:

'To Renee, my sweet—

from France via the Dunkirk
holocaust, 2/8/40, Sid'

All that way in a kitbag,

through panzers and snipers.
Bullets hitting the water
like kingfishers.


A current member of no school whatsoever, I aver that "plum" has to be the best of all possible words to describe that inscription, now so clear in my mind, and even the creator of Lady C himself would have had to be glad to have linked the natural world and the unnatural one of war with that bird and those missiles.

Among their many virtues, these mainly petit and incisive poems drip with wit. In 'The truth so far' the truths are actually plural and are “about God and arithmetic” inscribed on the “
tabula rasa” of a blackboard with “the expungible white of fossil shells”, and thus all is said that need be said about the deity and Darwin; and moreover about education, socialisation and the historical appropriation of the former by established religion for its own purposesand all that in the space of six elegantly-paced lines.

McCaffery's work is, however, never too cool in any sense of the word. Often, as the conclusion of 'Late admiral' put it, I have been sufficiently moved to have to “fan a dust mote from my eye”.

And so, reminding myself to KISS [Keep It Simple Stupid]this is simply one of the best.