Richard Caddel. Magpie Words: Selected Poems 1970-2000. Sheffield: West House Books, 2002. 182pp. £12.95 ISBN 1-904052-03-7
What welcome books these are. The comedy of Monksnailsongs — a wicked piece of wit disguised as a creampuff; the intelligence of the conversation with Flowers and its evocation of place; the range and music of Magpie Words. Here’s one of the poems in Magpie. It was written in 1982, and in Uncertain Time (1990) it was the middle of a triptych sequence, ‘Jackdaw in Spare Bedroom,’ one of 53 songs (‘some of’ which, as Caddel there quoted Charles Ives, ‘cannot be sung’). It has page 108 all to itself, all that white space round it a terrible waste, in some cultures, of clean white paper. But that lovely extravagance, start a new poem, start a new page, both makes this a really handsome book and affords the reader a contemplative leisure the poetry calls for.
Familiar territory, perhaps, at a glance maybe looking a bit old-fashioned, one of those careful quick takes Caddel is so good at: the quiet contemplative observation, utterly unpretentious, a tiny lyric catalogue, a bit like the music of Morton Feldman. The unobtrusive internal rhyme in the last line, the nicety of the movement through and in the vowels, the consonant play — here alliterative, there clustered juncture — determining pace, all matched by the precise specificity of that moment, the pungency caught in that otherwise humdrum ‘thinned’ with the length of its single syllable — the exactness of ‘late May,’ and that telling ‘after,’ picking up as it does the first vowel of ‘parsley,’ a small resonance like the keen lingering scent. The intense fragility of the familiar and even perhaps ordinary moment, savoured, available to contemplation and meditation. A little song, with an ear as exact as Creeley’s, celebrating small things. It is a memory device.
To the alert reader, ‘Parsley’ might seem familiar, for the poems in Magpie Words are arranged alphabetically by title, not chronologically by date. By happy accident that 1982 poem comes almost exactly sixty pages after lines which were written three years later, in 1985. They are in the penultimate section of Caddel’s first published attempt at a poem of some length, ‘Fantasia in the English Choral Tradition.’ I shall have more to say about the disturbance of chronology in Magpie Words later on; here I attend the play of memory:
The shifts in lineation and spacing, the breaking-up and interruption of the original sequence, and the denser context, even in this short extract packed with abrupt transitions and disjointed sequence, make for a quite extraordinary transformation, and the act of recollection — both of the earlier short (and let’s face it unruffled) poem and of the slight and more-or-less ordinary commonplace event which it registered — opens up a range of possibilities. There is the play of ‘measure,’ for instance, against the name of a common kitchen-herb; but that play is modulated by the connections between ‘reaching for the measure’ — which have to do with music and poetry (with both of which ‘Fantasia’ has been concerned in its seven or so pages so far, and which that ‘violin’ and ‘skylark’ nicely complicate) — and the ‘air shifting over ground,’ a phrase in this particular context suggestive say of Shelley and of English Romantic violin music. The impact of the repetition, ‘in a way, once / in a way,’ along with that crucial placing of ‘once’ just before the line break, plays up ambiguities and possibilities, not the least of which is the injunction that ‘it’s important to make mistakes... once’ as well as ‘once in a way’ (the multiplicity of meanings the repetition makes possible serves to undermine the limitations implied in that repeated once).
There’s an element of surprise in memory, as there is in any closely attended everyday event, an element of the unexpected. But in Magpie Words it is of course the poet who recalls the poem, for the reader hasn’t met it yet. Because we get it in reverse compositional order, it is the short, separate, quick take of ‘Parsley’ on page 108 that acquires an otherwise unwarranted and certainly unexpected resonance, the poem unobtrusively moving beyond the ordinariness of commonplace as it is so indirectly disturbed by the smoothing out of slightly turbulent recollection.
The reader’s act of remembering replays the poet’s ‘recall’ some sixty pages ago (but three years later) — such funny stuff going on with time as well as memory — with history, call it. This sort of play of repeat and surprise, where (as Gertrude Stein reminded us) repetition is never exactly repetition, is very much akin to a musical play of structure, and informs the whole book, echoes resonating back and forth among the poems. In the larger (book-length) musical structure it is as much a potentiality of repetition as it is its accomplishment, a kind of music of memory in which anticipation figures and prefigures, just as so many of the poems are, each by each, a looking forward as well as a casting back. Harry Gilonis has acutely observed (Fragmente 103, aptly quoting Zukofsky) that Caddel is interested in ‘the future of what has perished’ as well as ‘the past of what has survived,’ and is with this in mind that we should read Caddel’s remark to Anthony Flowers in Quiet Music of Words that ‘it’s all experiential, not out of books’ (21), the work an invitation to the reader to participate. ‘Without that,’ Caddel tells Flowers, ‘it’s a sterile pulpit craft which I want none of’ (28). The ironies in that remark, that it’s ‘experiential, not out of books,’ hint at Caddel’s insistence on what he calls ‘untidy edges,’ and it hardly comes as a surprise to learn that ‘the distractions of daily life, family, job, world, are generally very welcome..., recognised as part of the process’ (33). If it’s important to make mistakes, it’s just as important to pay attention to the details, the minutiae. How telling, that nowhere in Magpie Words is ‘everyday’ written ‘every day,’ adjective followed by noun — the two-word split so much more abstract, so less exact.
Sing it —
The quote is from Ghanaian drummer Obo Addy; it points to let’s call it the animal world, instinctual and indecipherable but not after all so Other as we might think. All meanings of ‘dear’; all meanings of ‘air’ — and the sheer unlikelihood of the poet’s task, through the sheer fragility of the poem and the ephemerality of sound, to enlarge our sense of life, to maintain the quality and range of consciousness so under threat (‘dear life’ indeed) in a world devoted to such poisonous abstractions as Production and Efficiency. Caddel’s poems do what they talk of, in that sense they are performative, and he generally reserves latinate diction — ‘committee’, ‘endorse,’ ‘guidelines,’ and the like — for the objects of his scorn, preferring instead the world of scarlet berries, burnet rose, water-mint, or — as ‘Flock’ lists them — turf, birdsong, light cloud, wind. ‘The heart pounds on’ (50).
wasted lyric in sickness
— ‘that chimney mistake’ is astounding, but there are other astonishments in these six lines: the aural risk in that ‘imagining a singing’ and that other kind of risk in the play on ‘down and out.’ ‘Counter’ winds it all in, dense complexities of movement, the echo of Williams in the last of these lines resonating against and with, as a note on page 180 tells us, ‘a number of works on the dance-language of bees, and diseases of the blood,’ perhaps the poet’s own sickness, perhaps the loss of his son (who when he died was, like his father at that age, learning to be a musician), but perhaps, too, what pompous critics like to call ‘the situation of poetry at the present time.’ Counter: one who reckons; a table or board on which money is counted; contrary reckoning. It is also a term in music, and a defence or retaliation. Overall the poem has a musical structure, playing alternating forms and chants, refrains invocations and lyric stanzas, a complex Charm or Spell in which lament turns into prayer turns into praise.
to make mistakes
exploring possibility, fostering surprise, and if the poet’s task in composition is to find a way of pulling the notes into a whole, an equally pressing problem is to find a way to make room for echoes and associations to happen, to keep the territory of the poem open, to ease up. So ‘control is an essential element, even in losing control,’ as he told Annwn (88), and poem after poem in Magpie Words deploys the juxtaposition of seeming irrelevancies or incompatibilities — frequently, in what I call his quick takes, through the poem’s title. What, after all, is exactly the relationship between the title ‘‘Darknesse and light / divide / the course of time’’ (it’s in quotes) and the four lines which follow?
Does it help (whatever ‘help’ may mean here) to know that the title comes from chapter five of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne-Buriall and that the quote continues: ‘and oblivion shares with memory a great part even of our living beings’? What lifts this juxtaposition, this apparently arbitrary linkage, from being merely a gesture towards opening up the territory? Perhaps nothing — this is an early poem, written in 1973 — but the urgency to keep the territory open, to avoid the stifling arrogance of knowing that carries closure in its wake, draws thought by risking perplexity. There’s a wonderful little poem, the fourth in the ‘Baltic Coast’ sequence, called ‘Threap’; its title and its dedication to Eric Mottram both a bit of a riddle — how do they connect? — until you find, looking it up, that the last lines quote the dictionary. Threap:
and the poem, its untidy edges still suggestive, suddenly but not in the least explicitly voices equivalent affection for Mottram as for the Balts, their stubborn difficult allegiances. Juxtaposition, here deliberate, elsewhere fortuitous, to enlarge scope.
The day I terminated my lightning-fast mustard gas liaison with catholicism was also, ‘by chance’, the first really rainy day of the autumn 1977/78, with its inherent discoveries of torn coats, leaky shoes, and lost slates. I became, after this, a firm believer in the workings of chance — a belief which has since been shaken.
But ‘Hitting the Vein’ is not listed on the Contents page, it is the third of nine poems originally published in Shelter (1979), a title which does appear on the Contents page, and if, instead of relying on the list of forty-four poems you can find there, you actually count the number of poems in Magpie Words, then there’s somewhere between a hundred and a hundred-and-eighteen poems, depending how you count, in 163 pages of text. Some of the poems in sequences like ‘Sweet Cicely’, for instance, were first published separately, and some of the eleven amazing variations in ‘Ground’ bear independent titles although none, so far as I know, was published independently of the others — nor should it have been. All this (and more besides) might be a terribly pedantic sort of issue, except that it points first to the sheer undecidability regarding some of these texts — is this a separate poem or not? — and second to Caddel’s arranging hand: my response to the poems in Shelter as printed in 1979 is quite different from my response to them here, where I meet them as a distinct sequence rather than as a collection. How wonderful, that all six ‘Rigmaroles,’ written over fifteen years and not in this order, should cluster together at about the two-thirds mark of the book, each quite radically differing from the others, all of them through their shaping of fragment retrieving grace in an what Caddel, following Maurice Scully, acknowledges a murderous time. Powerful music, compelling thought.
David Annwn. ‘[Interview with] Richard Caddel.’ in Peterjon Skelt, ed. Prospect into Breath: Interviews with North and South Writers. (Twickenham and Wakefield: North & South, 1991)
Kathan Brown. John Cage: Visual Art: To Sober and Quiet the Mind (San Francisco: Crown Point, 2000)
Sir Thomas Browne. Hydriotaphia Urne-Buriall, in Selected Writings. Sir Geoffrey Keynes, ed. (London: Faber, 1968)
John Cage. ‘Composition in Retrospect.’ Etchings 1978–1982 (San Francisco: Crown Point, 1982). This work is one of the source texts for Cage’s 1988-9 Norton Lectures at Harvard, published as I-VI (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990), where the words I quote can also be found (on p. 427).
Morton Feldman. Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings (Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2000)
Harry Gilonis. ‘Making a Music Out of Language: Richard Caddel’s ‘reading’ of the Gododdin.’ Fragmente 7 (1997)
William Carlos Williams. ‘Prologue to Kora in Hell.’ Imaginations. Webster Schott, ed. (New York: New Directions, 1970)
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and Jacket magazine 2002