READS OF THE YEAR 2015: Richie McCaffery
Although 2015 has been a good, rich year for poetry publications (Edwin Morgan’s The Midnight Letterbox: Selected Correspondence 1950-2010 to name just one of many published gems), it has been a disastrous year for readers and poets alike – we have had to try and thole the deaths of great poets and friends like Alexander Hutchison and Tessa Ransford in Scotland, along with border-crossing Elizabeth Burns, which has left us much impoverished. Further afield, 2015 has seen off poets such as Charles Tomlinson, C. K. Williams, Philip Levine and even a giant in the form of Tomas Tranströmer. To reflect this, my three books of the year are by both living and dead poets, known and unknown to me, and range from new collections to valedictory statements.
This Weight of Light by Chris Powici (Red Squirrel Press, 2015)
This Weight of Light is Chris Powici’s much anticipated second collection after 2009’s Somehow this Earth (diehard, out of print). It is a spare and elegant presentation to match Powici’s deftly crafted poems, beautifully type-set and designed by Gerry Cambridge. The poems are concerned with the countryside, the wilderness and the natural world as well as family life (both celebration and elegy) and the craft of poetry itself, in the form of muses such as the ‘Otter Goddess’. These are moving, resonant and quietly reflective poems to savour and return to over and over.
A Good Cause by Tessa Ransford (Luath Press, 2015)
While I look forward to new poems and collections from Powici, Tessa Ransford’s A Good Cause is the last collection published during her life, released shortly before her death in September which, twinned with the death of her son-in-law Alexander Hutchison, has left the poetry-reading public in Scotland and beyond reeling with shock and sadness. Although it might not seem like much solace now, we have Ransford’s final poems in print, and far from dwelling on her terminal illness and mortality, these poems bristle with life and optimism as dances of the intellect. Certainly, there are memories galore here, from lost friends such as the poet publisher Duncan Glen to recollections of Ransford’s life as founding director of the Scottish Poetry Library. What is really striking about this collection, however, is the sheer determined force of the poems and the collection ends with a series of poems looking to Scotland’s future, to re-grouping energies after the disappointing referendum outcome. Here is a poetry of commitment where “thought is also deed” (‘Hope’).
Transgressions: Selected Poems by Jack Gilbert (Bloodaxe Books, 2006)
Although the names and work of Powici and Ransford have been well-known to me for years, my final choice is a book that was not even published this year, but the poet Jack Gilbert (1925-2012) and his work I have only just encountered in 2015. I am not entirely sure why it has taken me so long to discover Gilbert’s mesmeric poems, but I am certainly grateful to have them now in the form of Transgressions: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2006). Gilbert is renowned as a love poet, but these poems seem to be written from the far reaches of the imaginative consciousness and to read his work is to be in the presence of a staggering aesthetic that is at all times pared-down, limpid and modest. Gilbert’s Selected Poems has become firmly one of my desert island books:
[…] Like pewter expanding as it cools.
Yes, like a king halted in the great forest of Pennsylvania.
Like me singing these prison songs to praise the grey,
to praise her, to tell of me, yes, and of you, my King.