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Words For Darkness

Meredith Quartermain reviews
Writing in the Dark, by Richard Caddel

61pp. West House. 1904052126

Discussing his development as a poet in 2001 (in Quiet Alchemy of Words, an interview by Anthony Flowers), Caddel says he learned much from the northern English poet Basil Bunting and the American poets Bunting introduced him to: Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, and Robert Creeley. So, for instance, a poem like “The Feet of Dafydd ap Gwilym Tapping to the Triads of Dr Williams” puts together, with great humour, British experience and American forms. In following these writers, Caddel rejected the Philip Larkin tradition, rejected poetic control designed “to produce a beaten artifact like a copper serviette ring or something finished and done with for all time,” and rather developed technique “in order to keep some degree of openness and movement” as he builds a set of notations and waits for the crucial unifying element to emerge (David Annwn interview, Prospect into Breath). Remarking that he wanted nothing to do with “sterile pulpit-craft,” he sees open-field poetry as an invitation to readers: “the only thing that’s important is that sense of negotiated space where writer and reader interact.”

“All art constantly aspires to the condition of birdsong,” says the English poet John Bevis. Canadian poet Lisa Robertson writes,

I wanted language to be a vulnerable and exact instrument of glass, pressures, and chemicals.
It has provided us with a cry, but explains nothing. (Rousseau’s Boat)

The territory of language as bird-cry, language as vulnerable, exact instrument, that, taken with all the other cries of living creatures, presents an unclosable eruption, rather than an explanation, is the territory of Caddel’s poetics. His work reflects an acute awareness of both music and plants and animals, particularly birds. Browsing through his collections one finds an early chapbook entitled Heron; a collection called Sweet Cicely with a cover showing botanical drawings of European chervil; another collection called Larksong Signal; and a collaboration with Tony Baker called Monksnailsong.

“Milkwort” unfolds in Caddel’s typically condensed, musically organized style:

Worker in metal.
Place it like a charm
under skin.
Close to ground.

Against fear.
Against ill-health.
Against riches that blind
my eyes to riches.

In “Enchanter’s Nightshade,” subtitled “homage to Louis Zukofsky,” Caddel engages in some Zukofskian word play, turning nightshade into

. . . night’s hades not bitter
sweet toothed leaf is hearts cling
not a trope a white flower is
scarcely noticed song stem so long.

Like Zukofsky, Caddel made phrasal structure, assonance and quantity — the musical elements of the spoken word — central to his poetics (he played viola and had studied music at university). In the series “Ground,” the feeding habits of thrushes work as a recurring motif, both semantically and musically, to create a theme and variations, each variation taking a different poetic form ranging from symmetrical two-, three- or four-line stanzas to Olsonian deployments pushing the limits of the page. His shaping of thought and sound through musical forms, as for example in the long poem “Fantasia in the English Choral Tradition” or in the highly inventive “Rigmarole: A Struck Bell” — with its tightly structured stanzas and neat, tolling or rhythmical refrains — goes far beyond the formal possibilities he absorbed from American writers.

As well, Caddel describes to Anthony Flowers a writing strategy that brings together seemingly unrelated things: “You take a view from one angle, then a different one, then you find a way of interlocking them, morticing them and a new thing emerges which is enlarged by, or confirmed by, or at least different to the materials of the initial viewpoints . . . . let’s call it Triangulation”.

Thus in his long poem “For the Fallen: A Reading of Y Gododdin,” in response to the death of his son, he weaves translations from the Welsh poet Aneurin’s great lament for the loss of many young men in battle with responses to it and meditations on his son’s life. “Underwriter” — another poem dealing with his son’s death — involves transliterations of English translations of works by Paul Celan.

In facing his own unfairly early death, Caddel again “triangulated,” with the voices of others, in particular Robert Duncan’s last work: Ground Work II: In the Dark. Duncan’s concluding poem states,

            The imagination alone knows this condition.
As if this were before the War, before
           What Is,   in the dark this state
that knows nor sleep nor waking, nor dream
            — an eternal arrest.

Caddel began a practice of literally writing in the dark outdoors in the evenings with a hand-held Psion. What emerged was a series of compact riveting condensations — some of the finest of his work. “Uncork this rare honesty from/ a gone age,” he says in “Reporter” (he loved a good single malt), “Won’t come again.” The poems in Writing in the Dark confront death head-on with humour, rage, charm, love, political savvy and, above all, song — the titles themselves saying much about the worldliness, courage and depth of his vision: “5 Career Moves Negotiated In The Dark On a Back Step In Northern Europe,” “6 Vessels Encountered In The Dark In Spaces Between East And West,” or “6 Workers On The Northumbrian Coast In The Dark Between Land And Sea.”

Caddel always wrote toward the unknown, gathering the poem in notes taken without a controlling objective ahead of time. Building toward something unknown in advance, waiting for the discovery that would give a piece direction and shape, and then careful editing with close attention to musicality of phrasing are key to this practice. It was a method he mastered, and nowhere more poignantly than in the compact, densely played pieces written as he headed into the greatest unknown of all.

Caddel makes the theme of darkness and light resonate in many different registers in these pieces, from a “Nocturne” on the black and white of half-timbered English towns

in black and white, black
and white, as keys set under
clouds in heart’s
abstract tonal system

played alone on time’s
borders. So each building
‘s phrasing, timber, joint
and cruck, in sounded peace.

to the dark of hatred, moral high-ground, September-11 acts of terror versus the light of children’s song and stars in a universe far older than any such human darkness. Musical forms are always at work here, in the conception, in the careful pacing of motifs, variations, echoes and half-rhymes, and in the arrangement of multiple takes on words. Keys are piano keys but also harmonic keys. The building of phrases is a timbering process.

Elsewhere, darkness and light appear in biological forms: “Mycobiont and photobiont/ stuck to these rocks for decades.” Or as parts of mind and body:

                      . . . Dark space
around a jackdaw’s

            eye / Parts of a
                       human body, seen

on a scan, are dark /
             Dark heart of mock

                       orange tree / Chimney’s
dark veins where

             no bees live / Dark
                        night with no planes

flying / Dark hearts
             of scarlet poppies /

                        Mind’s darkness,
where no thought

             comes/ Bat
                         flying across
moon . . .

Here the line-breaks make amazing play with light and darkness, as white space on the page around dark text, but also as dark cuts to the thought in the words, which open nifty readings like “the dark of mock” only to create new explosions of light/ sense as they allow the next line to reframe “mock” as “mock orange tree” with its white flowers. Darkness in the mind is a bat flying across it but the mind is a moon at night — reflective — of what?

One might expect, and indeed there are, a number of nocturnes in these pieces. However, Caddel is equally at home with bright, light staccato music:

dusk: surprise
shrieks past

empty bench —

of moon rising —
lack of its
sharp speech

Life is breath, and human speech, especially poetry, is an unclosable eruption, like the shriek of the swift, in the face of all that surrounds that speech. What is dead, the moon — but in this poem ironically the source of light — has no speech. The intimacy of speech/ song with life and death (light and dark) appears again in “songs without breath” where Caddel neatly crafts lines that make breathing difficult:

place of

souls where

dances now and
no planes

Caddel’s anger at social injustice and materialist greed is readily apparent in these poems. But he’s after something bigger than anger, he’s after the ground on which everything stands — politicians, song, what’s dark, what’s light.

Under “3 lost and one held onto/ in the dark moves/ out of winter,” we find


Gone light from eyes, light of kind
argument, a voracious spirit
calls. This walk, that one. We’re
alone in it all, unbearable.

Starry pockets in sky at night
the planets sing’ and we
long to join them. No, we
stay. Our books proved it,

while we were out, gone, nothing
left but shells. Hold them
to your ears hard enough
and you’ll hear the sea.

Here, again, is that bigger thing, the ground we stand on — the human condition, in a tiny dot in a vast universe.

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