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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

A pocketful of coping stones

I struggled to find One Point of Interest in this pamphlet — there is so much here that intrigued and delighted me. But in the end, I settled on the parts of Coping Stones that made me return to it a second time, a third, a fourth.

What I loved about Richie McCaffery’s writing was the moments of comfort and reassurance so carefully woven into many of his poems.

The first is from the title poem, which is also the first in the pamphlet, where the poet describes ‘hand-hewn 18th century masonry / capping tall sandstone walls’. The second stanza drifts in the poet’s memory, revisiting foundations built from the rubble of a temple. In the third tercet, an idea strikes the poet — that ‘should these high walls fall, we could salvage / the top stonework to make a home’. The final couplet of the poem ends poignantly:

nothing could get to us
in our dwelling of coping stones.

Words like ‘salvage’, ‘home’ and ‘dwelling’ cocoon us in safety amidst the remnants of historical ruins.

I found an echo in this pamphlet of the creation of something new from something old, laying foundations from ruins. ‘The most beautiful’ begins: ‘My nephew asks what’s / the most beautiful thing I’ve seen.’ The final stanza concludes:

                   It’s hard to say
that the accidental is what’s
beautiful. That I once watched
a nesting sparrow salvage sparrow
feathers from a recent hawk kill.

This idea of ‘salvaging’ is recurrent throughout Coping Stones. Indeed, there’s much warmth in what is presented, particularly (and rather aptly) in one of the final poems, ‘Heat’, in which the poet finds a ‘fossil crinoid in a pebble’ on the beach:

                            Freezing to touch
I carry it almost until we’re back home.
Warmed by my palm, I give it to you
something primal brought back to life.

These moments are reassuring, comforting and lovely; each one a perfectly captured ‘coping stone’ of its own.

Vic Pickup

*No website. Order by post from Walter Perrie, Fras Publications, 10 Croft Place, Dunning, Scotland PH2 0SB. Cheques payable to Walter Perrie.

 

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