Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The tales and truths of artefacts, Richie McCaffery's Cairn

When I reviewed Richie McCaffery's excellent HappenStance pamphlet, Spinning Plates, on Rogue Strands in 2012, I ended my piece by stating that I'd be following his progress with great interest. I'm thus delighted to have got hold of his first full collection, titled Cairn, recently published by Nine Arches Press as part of their Debut New Poets series.

First off, the book is a gorgeous object in itself. Nine Arches work with very high production values and a limpid font. This latter quality is key when reading McCaffery's poetry, as his compressed verse unfolds beautifully in conjunction with the white spaces around it.

Cairn possesses all the positive traits from the chapbook (it includes seventeen poems from the manuscript of Spinning Plates), but also showcases McCaffery's continued development. He is a specialist in extracting tales and truths from artefacts. One such example is "Last Lot of the Day". He begins by setting the scene, using lovely turns of phrase to portray an object:

"A mother-of-pearl inlaid, walnut-veneered
writing slop with a scabby purple velvet
surface for dip-pen, paper and blotter..."

He continues by casting fresh light on the object by connecting it to human feelings via the use of the term "mourning":

"...a bundle of black envelopes
with black edges as if mourning has no-one

particular in mind, and no clear address..."

And he finishes the poem by opening out beyond the object, encouraging the reader to seek further ramifications:

"...You might think of the dead that never died
to leave this surplus, as if they were saved."

In similar yet very different ways, McCaffery draws out stories from a police whistle, a bookmark and even a tarnished silver spoon in this collection. The spoon in question is described as follows:

"A deserter from a service, left pearl black
after years of clammy hands..."

The object's "truth", and by extension an implicit questioning of the nature of "truth" as a term, is then invoked:

"...The thought of which truth someone was forced
to swallow, to need so fine a spoon as that."

Nevertheless, my focus on these tales and truths of artefacts shouldn't lead to mistaken conclusions that McCaffery's work is limited or formulaic in any way. Quite the opposite is true, as is shown by longer pieces such as "The Professional" and "Spinning Plates", in which he allows stories to reveal themselves more gradually, removing layer after layer until he reaches their core.

Richie McCaffery is one of a number of significant emerging poets in the U.K. who recognise that "accessible" need not be a synonym of "facile", that Hamilton and Larkin can be tenderised, warped and twisted in a contemporary idiom without even a smidgen of fear. I recommend you purchase a copy of Cairn yourself. You'll soon see what I mean!

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