Richie McCaffery, Cairn, (Nine Arches Press, 2014), 63pp, £8.99. ISBN 9780992758912
Reviewed by Kyle Cooper [Originally published in LP4, November 2014]
It is worth paying attention to titles. There is an art to crafting a collection – each poem must be carefully planted, sending out roots to those around it and tying thematic strands into a coherent whole. In this case, perhaps it should be ‘routes’ rather than ‘roots’; these poems chart the wandering lives of others, explored through found objects. The collection is first encountered as a treasure chest, full of the paraphernalia of bygone days. McCaffery unearths an ancestor’s wallet ‘from the Africa Campaign […] the first time he had paper money to squander’, a modified compass ‘with a fifth airt carved onto it’, stones, whistles, pens and bottles. McCaffery explores the stories behind these objects, forming them into concise poems that sit in the collection like stones in a cairn, forming a locus for crossing paths.
Exploring these stories invites the reader to consider the what-ifs and what-might-have-beens inherent in the objects. ‘Last Lot of the Day’ is particularly rich in this kind of contemplation, opening with a material description of the auctioned object in question: ‘A mother-of-pearl inlaid, walnut-veneered / writing slope’. Inside, we find stamps and blank envelopes, and the poem concludes ‘You might think of the dead that never died / to leave this surplus, as if they were saved.’ The poem flows from the solidity of the object to a consideration of past owners. The dead and lost haunt these pages; McCaffery does not forget that cairns are used as gravestones as well as waymarkers.
Poems such as ‘Viv’, ‘Barney’ and ‘Brother’ elegiacally mourn those gone before, but do not slide into sentimentality – there is no chest-beating or hair-tearing from McCaffery, but a more reserved understanding of the dead and the ways in which they continue to populate the world through the items they leave behind. This is expressed as a quiet grief in most of these poems. ‘The Weight’ is as heavy as its title denotes, as the movement of a ‘big bad of compost’ invokes thoughts of a dead relative ‘lying in his little plot of earth […] the days when it rains always seem to be / the days when he lies heavy in the mind.’ These poems collecting a stony mass about themselves from the trails they explore. ‘The Weight’ faces ‘Cold Caller’, pondering the relationship between the dead and the living. If the dead rest on the mind of the poet, he wonders if the relationship works both ways. McCaffery considers calling ‘a dead number’ to hear relatives who ‘remember me as a boy […] When I tell them I’m now a man / they twig and hang up / on my cruel prank’.
McCaffery finds literary trails the most interesting – pens, stamps and letters are favourite objects of his, cropping up in an inky seam throughout this collection. ‘Dedication’ investigates ‘a shaky plum inscription’ in ‘an underground copy / of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ which reveals the journey the book has undergone – ‘via the Dunkirk / holocaust’, through censorship and snipers – and illuminates the relationship between the scribe and devotee. McCaffery lays down letters in the same way, using the discarded pens of dead schoolteachers, writing in ink transfused with his difficult relation with his father. There is a fascination with letters and communications in these poems, which observe the intricate details of the web of bygone lives – they allow for ‘the dead that never died’. Poetry becomes a special form of communication through this understanding, emphasised by ‘Homecoming’ and ‘Album’, dedicated to Edwin Morgan and Douglas Dunn respectively. The comparison with Dunn’s Elegies is rewarding; both poets encounter objects in a similar way, constructing elegies from the detritus of a life. I am reminded of Dunn’s poem ‘The Butterfly House’, although while Dunn uses photographs to reflect, McCaffery selects stamps. This choice of motif is not purely convenient; stamps provide a specific time date to items while simultaneously allowing them to travel, moving in time and space. The grave of ‘Elizabeth Logan (1837 – 1839)’ is ‘gadrooned like a prototype / for the postage stamp’ marking the moment and flux of this small life.
Letters, books, bottles and items are ‘stamped’ down in history, gaining importance as artefacts even as they are compressed to geological strata. ‘Press’ imagines a ‘garden flowering in darkness’ inside an ancient flower press, illuminating the hidden history behind each item in terms of a much longer timescale than a human life. The poems are compressed back into stones, as in ‘Saint Bavo’, in which ‘a tiny cartouche’ is discovered ‘bruised by dirty soles, / and grounded in this vastness.’ The collection forms a little cairn in itself, of fifty-four stones showing crossing paths – or marking burial places.
McCaffery’s debut collection is well-sculpted and pensive, melancholic but not depressive. The poems have a solidity to them which is almost tactile, but also open up to spirit worlds and contemplations. While the standard of the poems overall is high, examples of real flair are a little more uncommon, a vein of gold ore amongst the solid, well-crafted poems. However, they are worth looking out for; my personal favourites include ‘Black Sheep Inn’, which mourns ‘I have amassed regret like pearling grit’, or the reclaimed clothes of ‘Gil Martin’, who ‘remained the host, but was dressed / as all of my dearly departed guests’. What is really masterful is the relationships between poems in the collection. It is at its best when encountered as a whole, a meeting of paths and poems.