Engaged and Democratic

The Bunny Poems, David Caddy  (Shearsman Books)

David Caddy is an unusual poet and one whose work really ought to be better known. Although his poetry deals with the experience of living in a rural environment, he avoids the common cliches of contemporary 'pastoral poetry' - often little more than a pale re-working of the tropes of the Romantics - and while his work has a critical (you could say, political) edge, there's also an avoidance of the more knee-jerk, ultra-leftist critique of rural matters. I'm thinking in particular here of Raymond Williams'  riposte to Marx's notion of 'rural idiocy' and of Andrew Marvell's famous country house poems where the complexity of labour relations can be teased out from the glorious and inventive linguistic wit of the poetry itself. So it is possible to combine critique with pleasure and still have the best of both worlds, while demonstrating that a contemporary rural poetry can be engaged and democratic yet also delighting in language, complexity and contradiction. At least I like to think this is the case and Caddy's poetry, particularly the work in this book, is about the best example I can find to support such an argument. Oh that all literary sociologists were such accomplished poets.

There's an underlying theme of resistance here, to poverty, to the nature of class-relations, to the power of language as a tool for administration and for self-expression. Caddy finds himself in that classic situation of the working-class, educated thinker who remains true to his roots while needing to find a way of writing about these issues that rings true. He is writing on behalf of the disaffected and in defiance of the way society is organised and managed but he does it from the perspective of one who still lives close to a rural community and with the experience of having grown up in one. This is not a case of according special privilege but of combining an analytic approach with a more imaginative one in response to actual circumstances and to a long history of 'literary privilege'. His best weapons are his own experience, his education and a sort of anarchic, libidinal joyfulness, which bursts out in great bouts of expression in defiance of a muted anger based on arbitrary limited options. In 'from A History of Walking', for example, we get this:

    Bunny's modelled legs are more Chaplinesque
    than Wordsworthian knowing that bipedalism
    is linked to early laughter and freed
    hands lead to intricate manipulation.

    This dexterity, anthropologically, knots
    with sexual workers, innuendo, hypotheses,
    female ancestral hominid predators
    and plausible male insecurities. Fantastic!

These final stanzas are preceded by a more rationalist approach, documenting the joys of naming and the relation between language and place, also suggesting the appropriation - by both Left and Right - of the nature of landscape and its place in our Literary/Political heritage. Yet there is complexity here, a mix of almost reverence, perhaps, with an undermining, anarchic mood, which induces the sort-of mixed feeling and sense of ambiguity I still experience when reading Marvell:

    How full the trees, gates, barbed wire
    with books and mnemonics,
    how cool to store an entire library,
    remember the
Divine Comedy's maps.
        (from 'A History of Walking')

I'm also reminded here of Ian Duhig, a poet who takes a similar approach to Caddy, when undermining received opinion and challenging prevailing orthodoxy, though I think Caddy's poetry is more complex and nuanced.

Caddy's ability to embrace and transcend traditional formal strictures by including a degree of experiment is effective and invigorating and he manages to do this without losing sight of what he has to say. Thus in 'Botanologia (
after Gavin Salerie)', we have a listing which works as a sound poem and reminds me slightly of a similar piece Andy Brown wrote a few years back:

    Adder's Tongue, Alehoof, Love Apples, Mad Apples, Thorny
    Apples, Red Archangel, Mild or Spotted Arsmart, Hot or
    Biting Arsmart, Bears Breach, Cammock, Lady-Traces,
    Clown's Allheal, Creeping Dog's Bane, Earth-Nut, Woody Eye-Bright, ...
           (from 'Botanologia')

There's a submerged sense of the scatological in these names, an assertive earthiness which works almost as a curse, a 'fuck-you' response which implies the use of a 'hermetic' language which can be used as a weapon and as a way of proud self-definition. It's also highly entertaining, of course.

These poems also speak of silence, of men dispossessed of work and of family, on the brink of disaster yet resigned and disappearing into a world of the woods and trees; of a knowledge both deep and unacknowledged, yet there is little violent resistance ('No Burning Cottages') or political activity. Caddy in fact evokes a degree of displacement, which is painfully shocking in its location of poverty and lack of connection:

    Eight became six, six became four,
    some men could not hack it anymore,
    left early, took to dog racing, pigeons,
    making bird tables, rearing pheasants,

    cropped up in garages under apprentices,
    in cheese factories, garden centres.

    A gradual absence, with their world
    of signs and recognition dispersed

    like husks. No great noise. No burning
    cottages. Consent on the brink of sense.

    Each year less rows of runner beans,
    washing. Wildflowers altering the balance

    of things, shifting feet, stones.
    some turning authority, duration

    on its head, placing this against that,
    and staying put, not listening

    to the spaces between worlds.
    Susceptibility taking them like magic.
             ('No Burning Cottages')

There's a big chunk of social history encapsulated in those few lines, a succinct and exacting description which remains impressive in its understatement. Yet there is also an angry undertone.

Although David Caddy clearly feels a strong connection to his environment and perhaps also a degree of disconnection due to his level of formal education, he doesn't allow this to diminish his own sense of joy in the use of language itself, even though he is living in good faith and being truthful to his own experience. Thus he can describe the isolation and the muted anger, which this generates, while also allowing for a more unrepressed sense of linguistic exuberance, meshing the two in a fashion which is startlingly unusual. I'm reminded here of reading Raymond Williams (interviewed in
New Left Review, I think), talking about his experience of reading James Joyce as a student and being slightly worried about how much he was enjoying the process, as well as the pleasures of Practical Criticism where you could also get 'carried away'. Caddy seems able to marry both the cavalier and the puritan in his writing, including passages which are quietly descriptive and hauntingly evocative, yet which remain unsentimental and closely focussed:

    As a boy he strode down the hill
    to sing in the church with the village.
    These people have been and gone.

    He lifts his shoulders, accepting
    the weight of absences, and clings
    to the next moment of stillness.
               (from 'From the Farm')

By way of contrast let's take two stanzas from a poem on the preceding page:

    Alfie spits tobacco, his first and index fingers
    tightly holding a roll-up, his right arm arcing
    outwards and down. His stare fixed, seemingly
    intent upon some distant object. Quiet bull.

    Now owl, lady's bedding, dace out of school,
    ace in the hole in an underworld of muteness,
    nod and nudge, flutterer of bets, plough of silence,
    confederacy of dunces, apocrypha and apocryphal.
             (from 'Alfie Does Not Speak Much Now')

The whole poem in fact veers between what could be satirised as a dour description of rural displacement and poverty and a more vigorous, irrepressible use of language which has
something of Barry MacSweeney's excessive invective and hilariously dark 'loopiness'. Where Caddy wins out over MacSweeney, perhaps, (not that it's a competition) is in his combining of an analytical approach with a more joyful 'letting-go'.

There's an interest in the blues, which I take to be the subject of  'Young Paul Hart', a poem which scatters imagery and suggests a depth and indeed a dark glamour (much needed in oppositional art) in popular culture, which also aids a feel-good mood and seems entirely devoid of any cynicism. This is a meshing, rather than a clashing, of cultures and it's a coming together which seems effective and affirmative, rather than diminishing and prone to rehearsing those same, tired old arguments:

    At the Fiddleford, cold on the table waiting, two pints of 6x.
    A ritual, man to man, glass by glass, until chucking out.
    LA Woman in the air. Paul's declarative. Art portfolio.
    MG parked askew. He's got two women, the fuzz on his trail.
    He's a friend of the Devil. He's my friend. He's maybe your
    friend too. He knows Matisse, chords, runs thirty miles daily,
    will help you if you ask. His smile does not lie. ...
             (from 'Young Paul Hart')

Caddy is able to take what's positive in American culture without being taken in by the hype and the spin - no doubt a generational factor here - and achieves in this poem one of the few genuine utopian moments in this collection, a momentary endorsement of possibility and expanded horizons. If there's any intended satirical thrust in this piece then I'm not seeing it!

If the reputation of Thomas Hardy lies heavily within this poetry - due partly to Caddy's living in Dorset - and Hardy's essay on the
Dorsetshire Labourer remains a key reference point both sociologically and culturally, there's also something of Thoreau's Walden in Caddy's writing, where local traditions and natural knowledge are seen as not simply a retreat or escape from the world of the city but as an alternative information base from which an 'inarticulate critique' may yet be voiced. Hermetic traditions and the use of 'magic', homeopathy and alchemical suggestion can be used to empower the powerless:

    As prickly as cow's tongue, borage,
    Apollinaire, a pollinating bee bread,
    hairy barrach, to allocate courage.

    The language of the bristling Ox-tongue
    that knows no bounds by the roadside
    or in your grandmother's garden.
            (from 'Signalled as Ox-tongue')

There's an ongoing relish in the language itself, combined with a ritualised 'melting' into the landscape (particularly evident in 'Wild Swans at Stur Mill'), which is impressively rich in its lyrical sweep and in its physically immersive, entrancing effect:

            Great soap bubbles and froth swirl. Lover after lover,
            firm upon stamen and root, tight at nerve ends, edge
            stubble and eroded mud to where the river softens
            around islands and begins to ripple towards a charge.
from 'Wild Swans at Stur Mill')

This is both a nature diary, implying that sense of recording and producing sense impressions/data, while also being an almost 'metaphysical' or psychological delving into the strangeness and powerful perplexity of an alien but not entirely unfriendly world. This isn't Hughes' nature red in tooth and claw, though there is no hiding from the hard, raw facts either, but there is great strength in Caddy's alternative vision, stark and often estranged and alienated yet critical in its attempt to articulate that which is hard to define. Elsewhere, there is a sense of loss or a celebration of the here and now, the 'magic moment' yet also at times a sharp focus where Caddy clearly has the enemy in his sights:
    The owner would sometimes appear
    with fat cigar, smile and shrug.
    I recalled my old economics teachers
    saying that monetarists were a mad
    fringe group that would never come to power.
            (from 'Serena')

This fascinating, rich, multi-layered, multi-traditioned, and, at times, bewildering collection, can't for sure be reduced to an economic argument, but Caddy's mix of documentation and imagination includes a perception of real lives effected adversely by the last thirty years or so of ideological intent. This is at once a testament and an exploration of that damage and is David Caddy's most important collection to date.

     Steve Spence 2011