Mat Riches reviews Coping Stones by Richie McCaffery (Fras Publications, 2021), Emma Simon reviews The One Girl Gremlin by Phoebe Stuckes (Verve, 2021) and Hilary Menos reviews is, thinks Pearl by Julia Bird (The Emma Press, 2021)
Coping Stones by Richie McCaffery
McCaffery has always been a prolific poet, with many of his magazine poems not making it into either of his two collections or two pamphlets prior to the publication of this one. However, on his (sadly infrequently updated) blog, The Lyrical Aye, McCaffery describes the poems in Coping Stones as “all poems written since my 2020 pamphlet from Mariscat Press called First Hare but these new poems happen to have been written under the grim long shadow of Coronavirus”.
Even allowing for the fact that the majority of us haven’t been able to go far, this is still a phenomenal work rate, and with this in mind you might expect the quality to drop and or the spectre of Coronavirus to loom large. This isn’t the case.
McCaffery continues to build on his ability to take a seemingly innocuous item like a coping stone – essentially a decorative stone that sits atop a wall – and turn it into something else, a love poem to someone, at surface level, but also about seeing out difficult times. While he has always been a poet that does this (see the poems centring on fountain pens etc in previous works), Coping Stones also subtly gives you a sense of someone stuck inside, passing the time, and observing their immediate surroundings. You get the sense of the virus encroaching, the need to ‘weather it out’ and also a feel for the decorations on the walls that surround us, both real and metaphorical.
This can be seen in poems like ‘Samplers’, “Often framed, passed down family lines until / sentimentality dies out, by which time / they’re antiques and valued for having / lasted so long”, or in the poem that follows it, ‘Sugar tongs’. While neither poem is about the virus, they are the sort of small detail round the house you notice when you have time, and McCaffery extrapolates from there, with ‘Sugar tongs’ touching on car boot sales, providence and slavery before ending on the hanging note of the last stanza’s last line.
Silver tarnishes quickly
when it’s covered in fingerprints
like those left at the scene of a crime.
For all that looking around indoors, there seems to be an opening up around the middle pages of the book. The “snatched moments between lockdowns” are put behind the protagonists in the poem on the left of the pamphlet’s staples. The poem muses on the titular airfield and the works of Anthony Burgess and ends with an excellent play on words, wondering “that / anything at all ever became airborne here”. In years to come, when Covid is a thing of the past, that may not resonate so much but for now it adds extra weight to the poem.
For all the darkness contained within this pamphlet, whether it’s external or internal, I found that the last poem or two offered a sense of hope, if not of resolution
To the right of the staples, we see the the outside world again. ‘The crab’ opens, “He ran out along the broken breakwater / into the blue above, below and beyond’. For all that beauty of the opening line and its repeated bee sounds, however, the poem takes a dark turn in the second couplet:
This desperate day he got to the sea,
set on throwing himself in, swimming
until legs or arms to lungs gave up.
Thankfully, a large crab that makes itself “vulnerable in the open only for a moment” gives our protagonist enough pause for thought. Despite that pause for thought, however, the black dog of depression and ill-feeling is never far away in this latter half of the pamphlet. ‘The crab’ is followed by a poem called ‘Pincer movement’, but this time the crab is dead, and our observer sees a severed claw that’s
only slightly open. A measurement
in death of how little of a care
I should give all this in life but can’t.
Elsewhere, in ‘Wasted’, we can see people back out in the world but covering up emotions from both themselves and each other:
I meet an old friend in the street.
He’s coked up and I’m drunk.
As we sway and spasm
we ask each other how we are.
Our answers are rehearsed:
we’re good, things are good.
For all the darkness contained within this pamphlet, whether it’s external or internal, I found that the last poem or two offered a sense of hope, if not of resolution. Perhaps hope is too much to ask for, but there is a stark reminder in the final lines that we’d all do well to remember. After seeing a funeral cortège drive past while in the Letterkenny of the poem’s title, McCaffery describes an almost comical scene but one that pulls you up short:
I remember looking across the road to a shop
selling hardware, going out of business.
In the window was a hand-painted sign
saying Everything Must Go. Last Chance!
We can see shops going out of business on every high street around us now, but if you choose to you can take comfort in that final line.
I look forward to seeing where McCaffery goes as the need to ‘weather it out’ dwindles and he gets some sun on his face.
Mat Riches is ITV’s poet-in-residence (they don’t know this). His work’s been in a number of journals and magazines, most recently Wild Court, The High Window and Finished Creatures. He co-runs the Rogue Strands poetry evenings, reviews for SphinxReview, The High Window and London Grip, and has a pamphlet due out from Red Squirrel Press in 2023. Read Mat Riches’ blog Wear The Fox Hat.
The One Girl Gremlin by Phoebe Stuckes
Phoebe Stuckes’ latest pamphlet The One Girl Gremlin (Verve Press) fizzles with inventive and smart poems from the off. It’s one of those pamphlets that is impossible not to devour in a single sitting. In fact I was enjoying it so much it seemed to end too soon. Fizzle seems to me an appropriate word to describe a pamphlet that feels at times like a fireworks display. The poems are often brief – with many being relatively short prose poems – but they are lit up by brilliant and startling imagery. I found myself at times ooh-ing and aah-ing appreciatively.
Take for example the poem ‘Jane Fonda’. It starts: “I’m with Jane Fonda on this one, I never wanted a husband until I got stuck in my evening dress, it was like being digested by a velvet anaconda.” There’s a lot packed into those lines. The image is witty, original, and alarmingly accurate. The idea of a dress swallowing a women, literally and metaphorically, certainly resonated. But beneath this light touch there’s also a real emotional tug – a sense of frustration, of wanting. This balancing act is clearly one of Stuckes’ strengths and can be seen in her earlier award-winning pamphlet, Gin & Tonic (Smith|Doorstep) and eminently readable first collection Platinum Blonde, published last year by Bloodaxe.
In the poems here, it seems that the more Stuckes turns up the surface shine and shimmer of imagery and her carefully chosen details, the more the poems pulse with a sense of dislocation and alienation. The former doesn’t disguise the underlying emotional pull so much as as amplify it. We can feel the gulf between the two. At times reading these poems I had a sense of the speaker of the poem staring out from words on the page, looking for connections, for meaning in the detailed flux and flotsam of everyday life.
There is the same mix of longing and resonant imagery in ‘Paris’: we have snow, vintage Prada, oyster bars, Jean Rhys and Ford Madox Ford, and an enjoyable, if caustic, pay off line.
Phoebe Stuckes’ latest pamphlet The One Girl Gremlin (Verve Press) fizzles with inventive and smart poems from the off
Stuckes is also formally and linguistically playful. ‘Sex Scene’ loops a repeated phrase over and over, and I liked the conceit used in ‘Holes’ where the repetition of this central metaphor, serves to slightly off-balance the reader, so we too end up falling through the holes in meaning that open up, and then close us in within the poem. It is one of the poems where you admire the verbal games being played at the surface, and then get hit with the emotional sucker punch at the end. While most are prose poems there is a wonderful sonnet, called ‘Pastoral’ and other poems that use the lineation on the page to reinforce the ideas in the poem.
Stuckes clearly also has a knack for titles. The pamphlet contains one of the best ones I have read in a long while: ‘Dolly Parton enters a Dolly Parton lookalike contest in a gay bar and does not place’. There’s a danger that a poem can fail to live up to a knockout title, but this one doesn’t disappoint and in fact exceeds the high expectations we’ve started with.
Like other poems in the pamphlet this plays with the ideas of self as character, of dressing up, of being a walk-on part in your own life. There is a real sense of vulnerability underneath the glitzy glam of Dolly – and Kylie and Barbara Windsor who also appear. I couldn’t help smiling at the final image of “a miniature Barbara Windsor on her Barbara Windsor float, partying with the Barbara Windsors twice her size”, while also thinking about how we all (but women in particular) concoct and construct an outward image as well as our inner sense of our selves.
As a relatively new press, Verve Poetry Press have published some interesting and exciting pamphlets over the past few years, with high production standards. I like their mix of new voices and publications from more established poets. The One Girl Gremlin is another excellent addition to their list.
Emma Simon has published two pamphlets, The Odds (Smith|Doorstop, 2020) and Dragonish (The Emma Press, 2017). The Odds was a winner in The Poetry Business International Pamphlet & Book Competition. Emma has been widely published in magazines and anthologies and has won both the Ver Poets and Prole Laureate prizes. She works in London as a part-time journalist and copywriter and has just completed an MA via the The Poetry School and Newcastle University.
is, thinks Pearl by Julia Bird
Pearl is different. Pearl goes shopping in the Christmas shop in June. Pearl’s notable school skill is the sorting of similar items. Pearl checks out the same white bear from the toy library for three fortnights in a row.
modulation thinks Pearl
when tasked with any type
of regular activity.
(from ‘Yellow-Pink Pearl’)
is, thinks Pearl follows Pearl as she knocks about her faded seaside town – for a day, for a lifetime – doing everyday stuff. She has her hair done, she goes swimming, she plays in the recreation ground. But Pearl sees things differently, and we see things differently through Pearl’s eyes; when we are lodged in Pearl’s head the ordinary, the quotidian, the expected, become surreal, vivid, meaningful.
Pearl sees similarities between things where we probably wouldn’t; it’s her reward for paying close attention, and she offers it to us. In ‘Tactical Pearl’, “Pearl scoops / the egg from the boiling water and drops it / into its cup. The curve of the teaspoon / and the curve of the shell.” And the boundaries between Pearl and the things she pays attention to become thin and blurred. “Pearl / is a soldier; Pearl, the soft set sun.”
There are moments when we are fully involved in Pearl’s experience while at the same time able to see Pearl from the outside, though Julia Bird is careful not to give us information about Pearl so we have no idea how old she is or what she looks like. We bring our own selves to Pearl. In ‘Oxblood Pearl’,
Here she stands now
at the top of the giant slide, the point
from which there are only two ways down:
the metal steps or the polished swoop.
The arc of the sun is a coin-toss, slowed.
When Pearl goes swimming in the lido, she takes a pink blow-up flamingo and sculls up and down (using her “non-best-seller hand”):
From the tile pool edge,
the life-guard scans the liquid turquoise field,
the pink flamingo, Pearl’s buttercup suit:
the three split tones of the sun.
Pearl drifts on. From her own breath
she has raised a throne.
(from ‘Liquid Pearl’)
The imagery is rich, brilliantly colourful and startling, with such neat use of rhyme and half-rhyme – sun / on / throne – and a delightful conceit, in the last line, of the throne made from her own breath.
Bird, by her own admission, is obsessed with light. In ‘Violette Pearl’, Pearl goes to a night club wearing a dress covered in sequins, and encounters a mirror ball “stuck all over / with square-inch glimpses” of the goings on in the night club. Light seems to shatter and bounce around the poem, fractured through the optics, splintered by the mirror ball. Through Pearl’s eyes we see this as a sort of violence, reinforced by the plosives in the language – “hooks / and drops and luxe and breaks / and fights and pills and skin.” Pearl’s response could only be Pearl’s – when she goes back to the night club she wears the same dress, but “plucked / of every shiny sequin, / their cotton threads / left nervous in the air.” The cotton threads are like trembling filigree antennae, like Pearl’s hyper responsive senses.
In is, thinks Pearl Bird has created an assured and confident pamphlet. It is beautifully crafted, compassionate and hopeful. She has also created a kind of alternative heroine, and one to be championed
Bird is particularly good at seeing from a child’s point of view. In ‘Oxblood Pearl’, a boy is “poleaxed by the green shield bug which / landed on then took off from his arm: / the violation and the loss.” In ‘Flash Pearl’, Pearl thinks about the photo booth and remembers most of all the booth stool on its screw leg, and “the crank it took to make it pirouette”. I can see her now, unselfconsciously turning and turning the stool round to make it twirl.
is, thinks Pearl celebrates the alternative view, the sideways approach, the focus on something other than the obvious. It honours plurality, difference, diversity, people who buck the trend, refuseniks. It’s a plea for gentle sort of subversiveness. When staying in a hotel, it is Pearl who phones Room Service to see if there’s anything she can get for them (‘Foaming Pearl’). It’s an appeal for second chances. In ‘Tactical Pearl’ Pearl thinks,
There should be streamers and choruses
of Auld Lang Syne at every breakfast
when yesterdays, with their noisy campaigns
and tactical endeavours, cease.
Each Full English should bring a resolution –
the baked beans of I will, the bacon of I won’t.
Another chance to get it right should spread
like marmalade on toast.
And it’s also a plea for communication between people – it is Pearl who sorts out the row between two magicians when they get themselves “trick-stuck in competition” pulling rabbits out of hats, and it is Pearl who, as a waitress in a sea-food restaurant, places a basket of condiments on a table so far out of reach of the two silent customers that “to season their supper with acid, / mineral or herb, one of the pair / was going to have to, surely, crack.” So it’s surely also a kind of defence of poetry, of seeing things anew, or slant, and finding the language to communicate this. Of making a throne out of your own breath, perhaps.
In is, thinks Pearl Bird has created an assured and confident pamphlet. It is beautifully crafted, compassionate and hopeful. She has also created a kind of alternative heroine, and one to be championed.
Hilary Menos is editor of The Friday Poem. She won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2010 with Berg (Seren, 2009). Her second collection is Red Devon (Seren, 2013). Her pamphlet, Human Tissue (Smith|Doorstop, 2020), won The Poetry Business International Book & Pamphlet Competition 2019. Her newest pamphlet is Fear of Forks (HappenStance, 2022)