First Hare, Richie McCaffery
Mariscat Press, 2020 £6.00
A brilliant wrong-footing
I really like these meticulous, direct poems. And one thing I’m struck by is the surprises: just when I think I know where I am — because this poet’s excellent, in very few words, at conjuring scene and cast — he pulls the rug from under me, and reveals something unexpected, and deep.
Often a surprise occurs in a poem’s final twist. So ‘The fork’ shares an excellent succinct account of a reason not to attend a reunion — which runs in parallel with mulling this decision while carrying out a domestic chore. The ‘sharp-pronged Georgian cutlery fork / with a tapered deer antler handle’ that he’s using to clear a gutter becomes a satisfyingly rich image for the schoolboy with ‘promise’ who’s grown into the adult poet. But it’s the final step, about the deer, that brings for me something deeper and harder, more complicated and perhaps even truer:
that never expected to be whittled to a hilt.
The poem on the facing page, ‘Mac’, featuring the poet’s nephew, is equally beautiful and unexpected. I like it much more than I often do ‘family’ poems, precisely because its angle is one I’ve never seen before. Again it travels from setting a fascinating and coherent scene to an altogether more personal and revelatory conclusion — potentially, on a number of levels — and all within a beautifully-crafted ten-line poem.
Some of the surprises in these poems I find really moving, at least in part because of the poet’s openness. ‘Lighthouse’, for instance, is a still, quiet, nine-line poem that opens out into something, to me, extraordinary. ‘Circadian rhythms’ ends an (almost) adjective-free account of a seemingly unexceptional day with an expression of moving effusiveness.
And ‘Change please, please change’ ends so poignantly:
I pass a beggar and she says:
Change please, please change
and it’s like she’s imploring
all the world to be better.
Who's in control?
The poem ‘Lighthouse’ opens with a picture. It’s a ‘framed Victorian print’, hung on a bedroom wall, and it shows a lighthouse ‘in a tempest’. The wall is in a shared bedroom (by implication the room the poet shares with his wife). The poem continues (referring to the print on the wall):
My penultimate view
before I look at you
and turn off the light.
It’s drawn in such a way
to imply that the onlooker
is deep in the eye of the storm.
That final stanza is, I think, the perfect way to encapsulate a publication in which a number of poems suggest McCaffery finds himself tempested — perhaps out of control — and in a situation where events that started before him have taken over.
The poem immediately preceding ‘Lighthouse’ is ‘Sea-coal’. Here McCaffery muses on life and time where time is played out on a geological time scale:
We protest against it like sea-coal,
scavenged during a cold snap,
spitting on a beachcombed fire,
wave-worn but still burning.
While sea-coal suggests something that took aeons to produce and is formed by its environment, it’s powerless against the world in which it finds itself. It’s still on fire.
And there are further examples of this lack of control. In ‘Falling’, the poet’s great-grandfather falls at least twice: once, from a tree during WWI (‘Shot in the shoulder before he could take aim’) and ‘Later in a riveter’s brace on the Tyne, / he plummeted into the bowels of a liner.’ It’s clear that a tendency to falling (literally and perhaps metaphorically) has been passed down through the generations:
They put him somewhere he could fall no more
but he’d already laced his gene pool
with a desire for descent
While First Hare is largely based on looking back to origins, towards the end of the pamphlet, there’s evidence of McCaffery taking on the world in his own terms. In ‘Growing a beard’ we’re told
For now I’m going to hide behind a beard
that makes my face look like a scrap of paper
someone’s tried out old biros on.
Enough sketchiness to make people
think there’s a grand plan taking shape.
If he is hiding in these poems, he’s doing it in plain sight — and the picture is compelling.
Hare, heart (and time)
I like almost everything about this Mariscat pamphlet — the poems ‘of love, life and family with a Northumbrian flavour’ (as described on the back cover) but also how it’s drawn together.
Brent Millar’s hare from Heart and Hare provides a striking image for the front. The full image, reproduced on the back, shows the heart of its title and also the face of a timepiece, symbols of love and time.
‘Northumbrian’, the striking opening piece, has three parts. In the first, drystone wall imagery leads to a strong simile:
I want us to be like one of these walls —
nothing between us, no mortar or cement,
slotted in perfectly together, lichens
awarded us like rosettes.
Landscape is important throughout this three-part love poem. The hare in the second section is the one in the pamphlet’s title: ‘I helped you spot your first hare. / This fact seems important now’. (You need to read the whole poem to know why.)
That hare mingles with my own memory (of watching a hare run across a newly-mown hayfield in the depths of the Northumbrian countryside, past bales of hay, the sun beating down), and this makes me think about poems and readers — give us an image and we’ll run with it!
A final couplet draws the whole poem together, picking up on the earlier image of the ‘large blue barrels’, things being left unsaid that don’t need saying:
Our love fattens itself daily
unaware of greater schemes at play.
Past and present coincide in ‘The fork’ (a ‘sharp-pronged Georgian cutlery fork / with a tapered deer antler handle’). The deer ‘that never expected to be whittled to a hilt’ provides another link to the land, like the pheasant feeders in ‘Northumbrian’.
‘Circadian rhythms’, / after Donald Hall’ (someone I’ve missed, rather than lost along the way — another poet to explore) tells of a day filled with small, everyday things. It begins, ‘Most diaries would have had it blank, that day’, and ends, ‘It was one of the best days of my life’.
No wonder I keep returning to this pamphlet, finding new things to like, new favourites.