London Grip Poetry Review – Richie McCaffery

Poetry review – SUMMER / BREAK: Colin Pink reviews a brave and insightful collection by Richie McCaffery

Summer / Break 
Richie McCaffery 
Shoestring Press, 2022 
ISBN 978-1-915553-03-4

Summer / Break is a collection of poetry haunted by the break-up of a relationship. As the title indicates, the book is in three parts: ‘Summer’ which is about the happiness of being in a loving relationship; the slash ‘/’ part, which looks back at the poet’s past and his family relationships, perhaps searching for traces in the ‘family DNA’ that might help explain why things fall apart; and ‘Break’ which is about the poet’s faltering relationship with his partner. After the split the poet notes in ‘The Ring’: ‘…I leave the ring / in a tin, the way people still keep // the milk teeth of their children / as if they’ll ever need them again.’

The book is prefaced by a poem called ‘Out of the Blue’ which sets the tone for the whole book:

She left me and I walked down the garden path
for the last time, all confettied with blossom,

the petals like plectrums as if one day
I might learn to make music from all this.

And indeed it is the music made from all this that constitutes the body of the book. ‘Out of the Blue’ is a good example of the fine qualities of McCaffery’s poetry: the understated emotions, the precise description of ‘petals like plectrums’, the merging of past and present in the path being ‘confettied’ (past) with ‘blossom’ (present) while also nodding towards an undefined future. The comparison of blossom to confetti also reminded me of Edward Thomas’s powerful poem ‘The Cherry Trees’.

In the happiness section of the book the poet notices how the first letter of his partner’s name ‘S’ is like the shape of a structural brace often seen holding up old buildings:

securing a steel beam that gives a spine
to a weak edifice and how you in your way
go through my life, doing the same.

When snuffing out a series of candles he observes that: ‘…there isn’t much difference / between one candle and many // unlike the difference / between one candle and none.’

In the ‘/ ‘portion of the book the poet reflects on his childhood, family, school, and the pains of growing up. In ‘Back to School’ he realises that: ‘…there were cuts / in childhood that were so sharp you never / felt them until the blood welled up years later’

In the final section ‘Break’ the omens that have been stacking up in the previous two sections come home to roost. We’re reminded of the prefatory poem: ‘She left me at the height of the nesting season, / birds building while I was dismantling my home.’

In ‘The Fence’ the inner and outer, the past and present collide as the poet sees again a fence that he walked past in happier times, making her laugh: ‘…pretending to be / a jazz or metal bassist, strumming the wires.’ But now:

I came this way today, the fence’s in poor state,
one of the strands loose and wind-warped,
it looks like a cardiogram of my heart.

The book is closely themed around the process of mourning a lost relationship but also, perhaps, a series of lost selves. These quietly reflective poems represent a process of sifting through the past in order to identify significant emotional moments. Sigmund Freud termed this process ‘working through’, the work that has to be done if therapy is to succeed. Summer / Break is a sad, brave book, full of insights into human behaviour.

In the final poem in the book the poet visits his elderly father and asks him, as he returns from church, what the sermon was about. His father struggles to remember but finally he does: ‘It was about joy.’