Tuesday 5 February 2008

Man in Black

David Caddy

There’s nothing very obviously wrong with this collection. There are some wonderful moments of euphony, such as in the sequence ‘Shuffling the Icons Shaking the Trees’:

The ear takes soundings beyond
masters of grammar and taxonomies
each scented petal has a name
that I bestow and cultivate around you.

There are exercises in ventriloquism, taking on the voice of John Donne:

As swallows wing through the sunlit stage
and higher bodies contract when better come
so my returns may elevate, at any rate,
insinuate my softened cock
(‘To My Mentor’)

There are even, in the shape of ‘A Silence Opens’ and ‘The Devotional’ some genuinely good poems here. But there’s a genuine absence of anything to get your teeth stuck into intellectually or emotionally, which makes it hard to review. This shouldn’t really be a problem, but the book is very much set up as a one which is trying to say something. There are six separate epigraphs, which suggests Caddy is trying to tell us something. Invoking the names of Coleridge, Donne and the Renaissance alchemists John Dee and Robert Fludd is trying to say something. What?

We’re promised a ‘startling vision of the countryside in decline, of ‘absent Dorset folk’ marginalised and repackaged for the tourist industry.’ Maybe this is the nature-hating urban bumpkin in me, but is this really startling? Doesn’t everyone who lives in the countryside spend their entire lives telling us about how soulless capitalism is ripping the heart out of the rural way of life? Aren’t we always hearing about how yuppie townsfolk who do not understand local ways are eroding traditional values?

It’s true that in literature there’s not necessaily any harm in reiterating simple truths, especially if they’re giving voice to those not represented politically or in the mainstream. But by using the imagery of revolutionary outsiders so heavily, and certainly in the synopsis on the back, Man in Black really goes to some lengths to convince you it’s saying something radical and complex. Yet in the concluding lines of ‘Between the Rift’ we are gifted this image:

the people
beyond Safeway car park,
floating fish, superfluous
defence and of the need
to plant a tree

and another one and another one

Can’t you see what’s wrong with the world? Decent, simple countryfolk having their way of life destroyed by a Safeway. How vile is that? I mean, if it was something like a Waitrose or a locally sourced organic supermarket it would be okay, but poor people buy cheap microwave meals from Safeway which they then don’t recycle. Some of them probably read Heat magazine and listen to Westlife. Is this the rhetoric of the revolutionary, or the whining of a green-belt terrorist?

The fact that Caddy so heavily relies on Johnny Cash’s ‘Man in Black’ doesn’t help either. The song itself, when you think too closely about it, is almost unbearably naff – Johnny explains ‘why I always dress in black, why you’ll never see bright colours on my back.’ All the reasons he lists – wearing it for ‘the poor and beaten down,’ those who died ‘thinking God was on their side’ and (quoted here) ‘those who never read, or listened to the words Jesus said’ – doesn’t cover what we secretly know the real reason to be: which is that wearing black makes you look fucking cool. And Johnny Cash was cool. He wrote some pretty good – better - songs. Which is why he (just) gets away with ‘Man in Black’.

But Caddy is no Cash. He does offer us some Shakespeare alongside the ‘Man in Black’ quotation though:

O paradox! Black is the badge of hell.
The hue of dungeons and the stole of night.
(Love’s Labour’s Lost)

I guess the paradox he is nudging us towards is that ‘the man in black’ can, by living outside the mainstream and challenging conventional wisdom, offer a transformative effect on those who would rather believe they are living in the light. But what this collection conjures up is another paradox: that people who pride themselves on living on the outside for the sake of it and wearing black all the time can also be self-deluded that their views are anything other than conservatively mainstream. Which is why it is a style of dress largely favoured by miserable teenagers, men riding the wave of mid-life crisis, high-class prostitutes and washed up rock stars. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it badly wrong. Man in Black gets it so very, very wrong.

 


Poetry

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Resources

See poetry-queen Shirley Dent’s Guardian Unlimited Arts Blog

Published poet, Ion Martea, defends poetry for pleasure, in a Battle in Print, Of one who must be happy: an argument for poetry in relationship to please

James Wilkes gives a response to the Battle of Ideas debate, Should Poetry Please?

Bloodaxe Books

Hear poets read their work at the online poetry archive

Listen to Radio 4’s Poetry Please and the BBC’s poetry out loud

Penned in the Margins puts on UK-wide literature events, along with resident poet and Culture Wars contributor, Tom Chivers

See also Salt Publishing

Monthly contemporary poetry at Poetry Magazine

The Poetry Society

The Poetry Book Society

The Poetry Book Foundation

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