Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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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.

Mat Riches