West House Books
Sheffield, England 2002
Richard Caddel's Magpie Words, a selection gleaned from thirty
years of work, opens with an epigram from an anonymous 13th century
bestiary: "Magpies or pies might be called poets, because they
can speak words with different sounds." So we know these poems
are meant to be heard. Caddel's preface even suggests that, should
we get into any trouble understanding these poems, "reading.
. . out loud will get round most of the tricky bits." Numerous
titles mark the poems as songs ("Border Ballads," "Fantasia
in the English Choral Tradition," "Lark Song Signal")
but it's another aspect of Caddel's compositional process I'd like
to notice, that suggests not only a magpie's musical activity, but
also its pilfering behaviour. Caddel's poems exhibit a magpie's eye,
scanning over a vast common, consciously partaking of traditional
forms, borrowing bright treasures from other poems, hoarding all that
A quick look at Caddel's notes reveals his remarkable magpie range:
"A Short Climate-Atlas of the Soul" includes source material
from Gilbert White and The Ladybird Book of Weather; "Lark
Song Signal" is nearly all quotation; "two Juvencus englynion"
were very much in his mind when composing his own "Nine Englynion";
and "Underwriter," he tells us, "began as a group of
sonic translations [one imagines something akin to Zukofsky's Catullus
burying them irretrievably in the process."
Caddel's process is reminiscent of Ronald Johnson's RADIOS (an erasure
of Paradise Lost) or Palms (a similar erasure of the Psalms). In an
essay that addends RADIOS, Guy Davenport speculates that poets have
used a similar method for centuries, the main difference being that
they borrow words and use them as guides, filling the gaps between
with new words of their own devising. It is Caddel's ability to transform
this act of borrowing into various quite distinct formal devices that
sets him apart. In perhaps the most impressive poem in this collection,
"For the Fallen: A Reading of Y Gododdin" Caddel
offers us three distinct treatments of the original, a late 6th century
poem by the Celtic bard Aneirin. I'll closely examine the first section
of this "reading" in order to indicate some of the inventive
ways Caddel adapts his magpie borrowing to a very specific form: the
The first section of "For the Fallen," described as a "selective
literal translation" seems to be a partial erasure of A.O.H.
Jarman's translation, chiseling the Jarman text to an essential strand
of words-almost a skeletal trace of the original (though, of course,
"original" is a tricky word in this context). The poem that
remains is now not only an archeological remnant of Aneirin's and
Jarman's work, but an excavation in search of an elegy to Caddel's
son Tom. Y Gododdin memorializes the fallen at the Battle of
Catterick, and it seems natural that Caddel would notice in it words
and images that might become a source for his own elegy. Because Caddel's
elegy-making partakes of a tradition that goes beyond the individual,
Caddel places his own mourning and his own writing in a context that
is both humble and realistically aware of his very active place as
a poet and mourner now. His reading of Y Gododdin admits the
tradition of the poet as survivor and witness, a role poetry has always
had, whether it be a love song, a prayer or an elegy.
Part of the grace of Caddel's excavated and invented text is the
relentless discovery of raw evidence of a departed other. His text
tantalizes with parts of a once-complete poem so that our sense of
a missing past is palpable. I'm reminded of Mallarmé's Tomb
for Anatole, in which Mallarmé's fragments convey his failure
to construct a coherent piece (peace) and thus his failure to make
a poetic tomb for his son. In Caddel's poem, because Caddel's activity
has been to reveal his poem by losing words from the original, even
the writing process is an event of physical loss. Let's consider a
few moments in the poem to see what is left, and how it works.
Section 2 of Part One begins with a stumbling attempt at placing
Here, Caddel offers us no ground, no easy referent by which to make
sense of in or of. The poet is digging up only the fragments
"in" and "of," revealing his desire to understand
his position, or perhaps the location of the missing other. "Shift"
becomes, paradoxically, our most stable indication of position. It
indicates the role not only of the prepositions in and of,
but also of language in generalto embody ever-shifting, ever-adjusting
relationships. We need context for language to mean. Here, with dialogue
interrupted and context disrupted, we are left ever shifting, ever
adjusting, with only a desire to fix ourselves and those we have lost
in a stable relationship.
The following lines,
continue the effort to position. We cannot tell whether "under/light"
might mean well lit, or under lit. We might expect that shedding light
on the matter at hand would lead to clarity or consolation. On the
other hand, it might be the very thing we shift uncomfortably under.
The vertical chains of language in this passage acknowledge a powerful
relationship between what comes before and what follows, how the past
literally weighs on the present (a point appropriately made in an
elegy). Because the word "under" precedes the word "light"
in a vertical line, "under" physically weighs on "light."
Simultaneously, "under" is qualified and adjusted by "light."
The present affects the past, but is clearly under a great weight
of history as well.
The next passage,
seems metaphorical, as if the words were ships floated out on the
ocean page. Here "fleet" literally floats above "blue"
so that the possible synecdoche is also a concrete metaphor. "Fleet
on" is the first instance of two words on a line, and our vessel,
in this delicately balanced passage, is awkwardly large for the ocean
that is meant to support it. Caddel's formal awareness is extremely
intimate. To read the poem, we have to attend carefully to its physical
subtleties: gesture is as important as word. Through the gestural
hesitations and ambiguities ("fleet" also means quickly,
so the line is also quickly gone, a reminder that the passage of lives
and language is noticed and mourned), we feel as if the poem is happening
with us, not to us.
The next few lines continue to question the validity of what is unearthed,
as well as our capacity to hold on to what we value:
shall not be
Caddel's excavation now reveals "worked gold," certainly
something a magpie would notice, and something a farmer might notice
in the field at Catterick a thousand years after the battlebut
"shall not be" acknowledges that, just as this translation
chisels down or shrinks Aneirin's original, everything will fade:
the worked crown or amulet, the poem, and of course, we ourselves
and those we love. Worked gold didn't save the nobleman at battle,
and the poem will not save a loved one. Everything made will cease
to be. Everything we know exists "between" the two poles
of "shall" and "shall not be," and the poem appropriately
positions this necessary relation.
In the next lines,
song takes its place next to field. Like a field, the poem Y Gododdin
is worked, dug through, planted, and reveals the history of its workings.
The poem is a communal site, a palimpsest, where our poet excavates
the field/page of Y Gododdin, the field where those fallen
"Son", the last line in this section, when it comes, is
so sonically prepared for, rhyming as it does with "song",
"wrong" and "fleet on," that it seems the only
place this search could end. The work to get there has been accurate,
fragmentary, angry, exasperating. We have snatched at meanings, listened
to telegraphed messages, lost much in translation, and this final
quiet announcement manages to support a whole complex of feelings.
The word might accept or deny the mourning of the elegy. It exists
between "shall," a brazen announcement of presence and "shall
not be" a mournful cry for the fallen.
These are only a few lines from one corner of a wonderful poem, a
poem that is both more straightforward and more allusive than this
quick reading could hope to indicate, but I have tried to show how
Caddel's magpie habit of borrowing is made suitable to a very specific
end. Caddel's collaging is specific to the subject of elegy. The thin
vertical remains (looking very much like some fragment treasure from
Sutton Hoo) emphasize the pressure of the past on the present, each
new word twisting under the burden to make sense of the past.
Elsewhere in the collection Caddel adjusts his methods to write spells
("Milkwort"), to take us on a walk ("Uncertain steps"),
to draw landscapes ("A Short Climate-Atlas of the Soul",
"Hitting the Vein"), to sing love songs (all of them). Caddel
continually finds the right way to say what he needs to say. Each
form serves its occasion. Each occasion matters to Caddel, and subsequently
matters to us. When he describes a plant, the poem holds each word
up gently as if for microscopic examination. When he imagines a night
drive, we wait for the headlights to illuminate the next fragment.
Caddel has learned his craft from Aneirin, from Alcuin, from Campion.
And he has listened to Bunting and Williams and Niedecker. Part Black
Mountain poet, part Basho, Caddel is conscious of his debt to the
past and his duty to the present. This is a book of exquisite and
curious making, and Caddel shows himself the worthiest of makers,
worthy of the great history he continues and finds.
Footnote: Richard Caddel died earlier this year. This is a response
to his Selected Poems that I sent to Ric before he died. I
had little sense when writing this how appropriate the subject of
elegy would be. He was a dear man and a poet whose work I continue
to love and admire.
Three poems from nightgarden songs: moons
// snails // ponds