Written at night on a backlit handheld screen, Caddel's final collection of poems is infused with a love of the world
Sometime in the late 1990s, the poet Richard Caddel got his hands on a PDA – a Psion handheld mobile with a backlit screen – and started to make notes for poems on it at night. He wrote them in the garden of his Durham home and another garden in Japan. The poems that resulted from this experiment form the 2003 collection, Writing in the Dark.
These poems are, naturally enough, full of the sights and sounds of night-time – the moon, stars and planets form one thread of imagery that runs through the collection; the songs of nocturnal birds another, along with those other sounds of darkness – traffic, water, trains, hedge crickets and the laughter of girls in the lane behind the house. A third strand consists of images of breath and breathing, the fine thread of life itself.
These poems draw our attention to small things – weeds, flowers, a short sequence devoted to bees and another to snails – and these details are held up to us not as examples of their kind, but as individual things, "each / to its own / line". It is an attention infused with love, both personal love for a wife and daughter and also a love of the world that demands and is nourished by that attention.
It is also a perception made all the more acute by the dual darkness in which these poems took shape. The darkness that Caddel was writing in was not only literal, it was also metaphorical. In 1999, he was diagnosed with leukaemia. The book was edited by his wife, Ann, and published less than a year after his death on 1 April 2003. This other darkness surfaces from time to time, but lightly as in these lines from a poem called Distiller:
Dark varnish liquid, life.
We love it. Let it go.
You might be beginning to wonder what any of this has to do with comfort reading. To be honest, I'm not much given to the idea of turning to books for comfort; I prefer them to challenge me, to force me to think new thoughts or grapple with new information. However, I can find comfort in the fact that language and poetry can help a human being to make some kind of quiet sense of their own impending mortality. It's not that the poems in Writing in the Dark are in any real sense quietist; they are actively engaged with the world, as I hope I have made clear. Neither do they depend on any of the conventional consolations of religion. Caddel's faith, or as much of it as we need to know, is given in a few short lines:
under star music.
What you believe
And what these poems believe is that life persists. The book ends with the one poem from the Psion experiment that remained unfinished, Nocturnall, dedicated to Caddel's wife and daughter. In this poem, he twice quotes Pound's "What thou lovest well remains", but in this new context the phrase is drained of its rhetorical baggage and becomes a simple statement of human faith. Love endures; if ever a book could provide comfort, it is a book that enacts this belief. Writing in the Dark does.