Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

"Cairn" by Richie McCaffery (Nine Arches Press, 2014)

Poems from Agenda, The Dark Horse, New Walk, The Rialto, Stand, The Manchester Review, etc, and an appearance in Best British Poetry. 2 pamphlets preceded this book. Of the 23 poems in his Spinning plates pamphlet, 15 are reprinted here, amongst them some of my favorites.

That pamphlet ends with "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". This book continues the debate. There are albums and collections. Books, spoons, drawers, wallets, pens, buttons, ties and bottles are just some of the signposts pointing into the past. Truth might be back there somewhere. On a school blackboard a teacher scratches "the truths about God and arithmetic/ with the expungeable white of fossil shells". In "7 Pudden Wynd" time might be reversed - will that help? No. What about photographs? In "Negatives", "The celluloid too far gone/ to be developed,/ you hold each one/ to a bay window,// seeing light where/ there was darkness". Sometimes the objects have names on (or in) them. Often the names mean nothing to the persona -

  • In "Miss Anderson's Pen", (one of the weaker poems) an engraved pen is imagined to belong to a teacher.
  • In "Phonebook" the narrator wonders about phoning the crossed out numbers in (their mother's?) "leatherette phone book".
  • In "Gil Martin" we read that "Growing up, most of my clothes/ were at the very least second hand./ Some of the shirts and jackets/ still carried old owner's names/ sewn into the scruff of the neck"

Do names provide identity? In "Plimsolls" the persona's name is written on the "inner sole" by his/her mother. Later the persona wears brand-named boots.

The poems are firmly grounded in reality, "St Lawrence's" being a rare exception, beginning with an extended metaphor - "Sunday, the organ is lowing/ like the last harpooned whale.//People take its blubber to light/ lamps inside themselves". Many of the poems are short yet feel complete. They mostly work for me. If there too many of these in a book, the reader will learn how to anticipate the twist (delivered in several of these poems by an "I" appearing for the first time). "Warkworth" was too obvious. I didn't like "Ink" either. Sometimes a poem begins the way I'd commence a story - " The other evening with nothing much to do/ I played noughts and crosses within panes/ of my sash window. I pretended you/ joined in from the other side of the world/ and I tried my best not to let you win " (p.32). In general though the longer poems impress. I like "The Rapture", "The Professional", "In Praise of Sash Windows", "X", "Ties", and "Spinning Plates".

For readers who like joining the dots up, who like assuming that all the personae are one, the last poem plus a few others might hint at a mother who was adopted (maybe more than figuratively abandoned on a doorstep as a baby) and the persona's vicarious nostalgia for identity (the poet was born in 1986).

Other reviews

  • Matthew Stewart
  • Judi Sutherland
  • Charlie Baylis (Stride) (Cairn is a brilliant first collection, it rides on every eternal wave that a serious and profound poet should ride, ... I hope Cairn gets the readership and exposure it deserves. A stunning debut, I take my hat off and throw it in the air. Bravo Richie McCaffery)

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