On clearing my great aunt’s house, my parents presented me with her ACME Thunderer. She was a teacher from the old school, and I can imagine her, the stillness in the playground’s white-painted centre circle, as demented little tots bounced off of one another in a wheeling, shrieking mass. Her lips purse and her hand raises the whistle to her lips to call an end to playtime. Once a glossy silver, the whistle’s surface is now dulled and matt but, when I blow it, I am that young woman in my mind’s eye, and the playground noise hums about me.
In Richie McCaffery’s hands, the past sings and buzzes with joy, pain and regret. In Dedication, the second poem in his pamphlet, Spinning Plates, the first two stanzas read: ‘In an underground copy / of Lady Chatterley’s Lover / a shaky plum inscription: / ‘To Renee, my sweet – / from France via the Dunkirk / holocaust, 2/8/40, Sid.” McCaffery’s language is stripped and reads like notes, as his first stanza is missing a main verb. Smuggling this particular banned book is a youthful, erotic gesture which flies in the face of a time of trouble but, with the ‘shaky’ inscription, McCaffery sours the mood. Its shakiness leaves us wondering about the effects of Operation Dynamo, which was completed on the 3rd of June, two months before Sid penned his words. ‘Holocaust’ indicates how quickly words can change their meanings as, in 1940, Sid could have had no idea of how The Second World War was going to change humanity’s understanding of this word (Auschwitz started its attempted genocide of the Jewish people in May that year). Ultimately, however, this is a romantic poem: Sid’s written dedication, coupled with the physical dedication he showed by transporting the novel through water which may have well lapped at his shoulders, sounds like a knightly quest, and so McCaffery’s stark poem leaves us with an Imagist moment of fragile, terrible beauty: ‘Bullets hitting the water / like kingfishers.’
The impact of The Second World War recurs throughout the pamphlet. In Rust, we read that, ‘In the dunes at Warkworth beach, / wartime barbed wire corrodes / in marram grass, coiled like cilices.’ The first line keeps the secret but, in line two, the wire is almost cancerous, as it corrodes. ‘Corrodes what?’ we might wonder. However, in the final line of the tercet, we discover that it corrodes itself and that its location, ‘in marram grass,’ makes it finally feel like a part of the landscape. ‘Cilices’ derives from Cilician goat hair, giving us the original penitential hair shirt, making us wonder whether reconciliation and absolution have now been achieved.
Women, and especially mothers, haunt the collection and so, in a poem like Flotsam, where ‘They found her faux-leather handbag first / with the usual tidal stuff, shore-froth, pincers, / bits of broken shells, ragworm casings’, McCaffery invites us to wonder about the relationship between the various materials washed up on the beach. We’re reminded of Rust’s World War, but this is more intimate. The first stanza implicitly denigrates the woman: her handbag’s a fake and the second line’s ‘with’ and ‘stuff’ make it sound like the usual flotsam. However, the second stanza examines the bag’s contents, which McCaffery presents as a series of omissions: ‘It didn’t contain the tools of her trade: / clot-red lippy, war-paint, a Stanley knife, / French-ticklers, a skint wallet of old plastics’. The Stanley knife suggests defence against an altogether more domestic form of violence, yet McCaffery’s final line, ‘the tide was turning, they needed the boat,’ reminds us that we have been pulling bodies out of the water long before Dunkirk, long before 1940, and many of these were women: casualties of aggression and desire.
The pamphlet’s penultimate poem, Police Whistle, unites the collection beautifully. ‘In a drawer of his old ties / I find it, squat and silver – / my grandfather’s police whistle. // I blow it so loud and urgent / that even he hears in the dark / […] a breaking of wax seals / and questing of blood hounds’. Beneath McCaffery’s understated surfaces, and beyond his troubling, evasive endings, lies a deep-rooted desire for revelation, judgement and justice.