Richie McCaffery's Spinning Plates (HappenStance Press, 2012) is a book that I've been carrying around for the last few weeks while I grappled with it.
This is poetry that lures the reader in with inital accessibility and firm ground, before undermining its own point of departure, thus leading to puzzles, intrigues and challenges. A lazy critic might dismiss these as insubstantial games, but that would be to miss the point completely, as I'll now explain.
Let's start with the excellent example of the pamphlet's first poem, The professional. McCaffery offers us a first line that seems clearcut, before immediately casting doubt on it in the second line:
"You ask what I do for a living
and I don't think I can say..."
Meanwhile, his use of adjectives also shifts as the poem progresses. Stanza one sees "tell-tale", stanza two moves on to "pointless" and stanza three features "faint", "subtle" and "half-bearable". These tell their own story.
McCaffery is highly skilled in his use of language, high and low registers bouncing off each other as everyday contexts are illuminated. For instance, Brother finds a "sports-day race" alongside "obsidian wools" and "laurelled gloaming", while Mother juxtaposes a "Geoff Hurst kick" and "pink obelisks". Such a technique often seems flash, but it actually works very well in this case.
That is because McCaffery is harnessing his enjoyment of words. He's portraying an uncertain world of shifting perspectives (and thus registers), in which situations are as tenuous as the "spinning plates" of the collection's title. In Still, for example, the reader sees that only death is, like the corpse of a mouse, "sure as stone".
Demanding but eventually offering up rich rewards, Spinning Plates is a terrific first chapbook. Its merit lies in the way McCaffery manages to align his view of life with his poetics. Such coherence is a huge achievement for a poet of his age. I'll be following his progress with great interest.
The prizes tend to go to books about grief, or dystopias. Or oppression. Or sexual abuse, or any kind of sexual dysfunction. ‘Light verse’ – about as disp...