This collection really resonated with me. Perhaps this is due to the themes of moving away from home and living in a foreign country that I relate closely to, but I agree with Vicki Feaver’s description of it as a collection that is both “unsettling and often incredibly moving.”
The collection opens with the quote “What I see and what happens are two different countries” and this sense of duality permeates the collection, whether it’s flitting between two places physically or being suspended between two periods of time.
Although this may sound a little grandiose and abstract, the work itself is very much grounded in the minutiae. One of the things that struck me was McCaffrey’s skill in finding the profound in the little observations. In the poem ‘Delft tile’, he manages to use an object to explore the sense of loss when a loved one leaves and the conflict in being separated. The last stanza of the poem is brutal and lingers for a long time:
“…so it survives
the flight home through blue sky
and the blueness that persists beyond the tile’s glaze.”
This sense of melancholy around family rooted in the little observations is the root of the opening poem ‘Breakdown’ and signifies that this collection will explore the idea of the cyclical nature of the world. Again, the last stanza is a real sucker punch, hammering the pathos home with a deft image.
“I’ve no kids of my own and no intention,
So I pull myself apart without knowing
how I can be put back together.”
Inheritance and ancestry sings through the collection in poems such as ‘Postcard from Ostend’ but is more weighted by a feeling of impermanence, both in time and place that crescendos in the haunting ‘Roots’:
“Our problem in the tangled
roots we can’t put down
in your country or mine.
We drift around with them
like loose shoelaces, knowing
in time they’ll trip us up.”
The collection feels like he’s struggling to make sense of this sense of impermanence as the poems flit between his new home in Ghent (which features in a lot of the poems) and Glasgow, where the detail of a cash machine on Byres Road dispensing English banknotes is an unexpected image. However, it is a lack of stability in the present tense that defines the poetry.
He journeys back to his youth in ‘University and ‘Ballylar, Fanad.’ As he looks back, his life is suspended in time in the lines “I look at my younger self/ and he won’t meet my gaze.” He takes this further in ‘Spoor’, where this time he’s filled with a grief for a lost world:
“All the children I knew,
including the one I was,
have vanished, their
bodies never found.”
Many of the poems explore how he feels unable to settle in the moment and some of the most powerful phrases refer to this, such as in ‘Baudelopark’ when he declares:
“The days pass by and rarely/ make contact with me.”
However, not all of the images are quite so fatalistic. There is a lot of melancholy in the collection, but it varies enough to avoid becoming turgidly depressing. Some thoughts are very delicately phrased, such as in ‘Spanish guitar’:
“the dead air sent singing –
melody only becomes such when it leaves
the instrument, fans out and haunts us.”
Yes, there are some very brutal images but they are fragrant with language. There’s a beauty in ‘Kongostraat’
“I’m getting panic attacks again –
sweaty, sleepless nights.
In the morning, I open the curtains
and the heat of my fear
has steamed the glass unclear.”
It’s difficult to imagine a sense of hope building in a poem that starts with panic attacks, but as the poem progresses, there’s a sense of coming to terms – much as the collection begins to come to terms with this suspended position. Poetic mindfulness, if you will:
comforting to know
that even if I fail the day
or it fails me, it still passes.”
There is even more hope in the final poem ‘Corner’
”Today I’m turning a corner,
its house has curved windows,
the stone is solid and rounded
and something to behold.”
There was so much in this collection to admire. I’ve found myself coming back to it again and again as snippets flit across my consciousness. Possibly one of the best collections I’ve read in the last couple of years – really excited to see what comes next.