Martin Corless-Smith

Magpie Words

Richard Caddel
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 sparkles.

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 translations]…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 elegy.

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 us:


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 general—to 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,

fleet on

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:

worked gold
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 battle—but "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 lie.

"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




© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review