Words For Darkness
Meredith Quartermain reviews
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.”
I wanted language to be a vulnerable and exact instrument of glass, pressures, and chemicals.
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.
Worker in metal.
In “Enchanter’s Nightshade,” subtitled “homage to Louis Zukofsky,” Caddel engages in some Zukofskian word play, turning nightshade into
. . . night’s hades not bitter
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.
The imagination alone knows this condition.
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.”
in black and white, black
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.
. . . Dark space
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?
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:
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.
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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