GUILLERMO PARRA Reviews
Uncertain Time by Richard Caddel, with an introduction by Aaron Tieger
(Pressed Wafer, Boston, 2011)
“An adventure of the air”: Richard Caddel’s Night Songs
William Corbett’s Pressed Wafer has been in existence for over a decade now. Pressed Wafer’s editions have included broadsides, chapbooks, anthologies, magazines and full-length books by poets directly and indirectly tied to Boston and New England. Thanks to Corbett’s efforts, several late works by John Wieners were published, including the posthumous Kidnap Notes Next. Two poets of my affection, Fred Moten and Cedar Sigo, had their first works published with this small but influential press. Now Pressed Wafer has released the first American edition of the English poet Richard Caddel (1949-2003), entitled Uncertain Time.
Originally released in England by Galloping Dog Press in 1990, Caddel’s book is accompanied by a helpful introductory essay by the poet Aaron Tieger, along with a biographical note by Corbett, who was a friend of Caddel’s. Tieger edited a selection of Caddel’s work in his magazine CARVE, back in 2005. As with most Pressed Wafer publications, this edition is beautifully designed. It has an elegant yellow cover and wide, creamy pages that allow for Caddel’s poems to breathe naturally with plenty of space. On the back cover, a more personal blurb from Corbett evokes his friendship with Caddel. This personal touch gains significance once you proceed into the book. Caddel’s poetry establishes an intimacy with the reader over time, as the precise imagery and sound of his poems begins to resonate like a personal music. The poet asks that we collaborate in bringing to life the sound of the poems while we read them. Caddel’s conception of poetry is deeply influenced by his friendship —one might also call it an apprenticeship— with Basil Bunting, who emphasized the importance of listening: “Poetry, like music, is to be heard. It deals in sound…”
In his introduction to Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems (New Directions, 2000), Caddel, a student of Bunting who eventually became a founding director of the Basil Bunting Poetry Center at Durham University Library, discusses the difficulty contemporary readers might face when encountering poetry. Caddel’s observations about the importance of sound in Bunting’s work, encourage reading aloud as an entry into poetry that might seem forbidding at first glance:
We are not all trained readers of poetry today. For the new reader,
the first experience of sounding these poems in the air, however
inexpertly, will be physical —nervous perhaps— but above all
enriching. Word patterns which may at first appear dense and
complicated on the page become articulated and clarified, resonating
across the poem’s structure. The subtleties and echoes of language
which hold a poem together are revealed by the process of sounding it.
One of the joys of Uncertain Time is the structure of the book, which is designed to create resonances that flow back and forth along the pages as we read. The book is structured so that it might be reread, until the sounds themselves become familiar to us, while opening new glimpses of Caddel’s distinct voice. Uncertain Time is organized into two sections: the first is the long poem “Fantasia in the English Choral Tradition,” where Caddel displays a concern for the text as an architectural construction across the page. As Tieger writes in the introduction: “Ric described “Fantasia in the English Choral Tradition” […] as his “final working of the ‘objectivist poem’ —that wrought thing, that almost determined coming-to-a-focus.””
This first poem begins and closes with fragments, so that we are instantly allowed the freedom to read it as we’d like, in fragments, as a whole, or as a prelude to the rest of the book. Caddel is both singing and theorizing his song, employing a style that bends to the pleasures of subtle surprise in poetry. The final lines of this poem are not only fragmented, they are also a declaration of an aesthetic of the “everyday.” We find this appreciation for the beauty and music of the daily throughout this book. Caddel presents himself as an arranger of a perfect sound forever indebted to the improvisation of the moment:
I am back in thought
in the hills
the things I love
as they occur
The second, and longest, section of the book is a sequence of 53 numbered “songs” that explore the same concern for the poem as a visual field, but in much tighter structures. It seems apt that the penultimate text of the book is a page-long prose poem that takes up the entire visual field, speaking directly to the reader—and to the poet himself— with deceptively plain words. There is a sense in this book that Caddel is thinking about himself within a life-long span of work, not just his immediate time and place of composition. The “fantasia” of the first part of the book carries us into very specific realities of self, landscape, polis and time (as manifested through sound) in the quick “songs” that, like any good composition, you want to play over & over again. Take, for instance, the following poem, quoted in its entirety:
kick the brush-
pollen, compass, magic
pinks and yellows
In his introduction, Tieger describes Caddel’s use of a precise sound that is “knowing, cadenced, intimate.” This intimacy is evident throughout Uncertain Time. Among the striking aspects of this book are the unexpected images and sounds the poet creates, often based in everyday occurrences: “Rain (harpsichord) / in Weardale / the drops / fall from leaves / with a little / tug…” The precision in these lines mirrors that of the miniature landscape being described.
Caddel, along with Peter Quartermain, edited an important anthology of experimental English poetry entitled Other: British and Irish Poetry Since 1970 (Wesleyan, 1999) that served as a manifesto of sorts. Their anthology seeks to amplify the field of English poetry beyond the notion of a single tradition. In their “Introduction—A Fair Field Full of Folk,” they propose a rereading of the English poetic canon as something that defies standard notions of a single, cohesive lineage:
Identity, and the “culture” that goes with it, is conjectural, invented
and inventive, not intrinsic —this is the age of mestizo culture, of
(in [James] Clifford’s phrasing) an “unprecedented overlay of
traditions.” In any community multiple-identity structures are at play.
Communities overlap and intertwine, are local and spread out, tight-knit
Caddel’s own poems are built on elements that “overlap and intertwine,” at once deeply rooted to a specific place (the rural landscape of northern England) and open to how that region might resonate within the greater world. This multiplicity is expressed in the manner by which his language bends and refashions itself with each poem. One gets the sense in Caddel’s poems that he is invoking ancient traditions, handed down informally from nature to poet and from voice to voice. But those traditions are remade to fit the living present in all its humility, delighting in the often-overlooked sheen of the ordinary to be found all around us. This exchange between the ancient and the now is registered in the following fragment from the first section of the book, where Caddel’s “folk” voice thrives:
something reaching out to you
from the warmth
of two people together
for an instant
different from one another —
to wait perhaps a life
for as much—
lighthouse puts out its signals
to no ships
a voice of life
how small it may seem
in the dark
That same “dark” is breached in the penultimate poem I mention above, called “Mist,” where a lighthouse is again used by Caddel. In four long paragraphs that take up an entire page, Caddell reminds us that what we’ve been reading is illusory. The opening sentences set a spectral and peaceful setting: “Towards evening the mist comes in off the sea without a sound, as if prearranged. The temperature drops and you squat on your heels to watch the eddies of brown tidal drift as droplets collect on your hair, your clothes, your skin.” Those “droplets” evoke the short, intense “songs” we have been reading in the previous pages. It’s as though the poet were reiterating one last time his position as an invisible observer. And in that invisibility, Caddel’s poetry is all the more alluring, staking out a field of its own, confident and subdued, taking pleasure in the sinews and unexpected paths of his words.
Uncertain Time gathers inspiration from a broad range of sources, from nature to fellow poets to the pull of memory as rendered by the music of the silent page. One can read these pages multiple times and always find a surprising melody in its carefully calibrated forms. In a poem honoring the surrealist painter Paul Nash, we find a stanza that encapsulates the nighttime magic of this book. In the following stanza we can hear Caddel’s exquisite lines, so attuned to their own construction yet open to an errant, nocturnal pulse:
An adventure of the air
at night. Trees
fused in mist as solid
as the ground. We were there,
grounded, too: our
lost papers in a room
yet to be built.
William Corbett has recently departed for New York, a move that deprives Boston of its most important source for experimental poetry. One hopes that Pressed Wafer will continue to publish such vital poetry as this book by Caddel, whose work deserves more readers here in the United States. That “room / yet to be built” is the invitation Richard Caddel’s poetry offers those readers lucky enough to encounter this marvelous book.
Guillermo Parra was born in Cambridge, MA in 1970 and lives in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of Phantasmal Repeats (Petrichord Books, 2009) and Caracas Notebook (Cy Gist Press, 2006). As a translator, he has published José Antonio Ramos Sucre: Selected Works (University of New Orleans Press, 2012) and José Antonio Ramos Sucre, From the Livid Country (Auguste Press, 2012).