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Audrey Hepburn at Breakfast at Tiffany's. Espa...

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perhaps the little black dress epitomises haute couture because black is the perfect foil for a dirty great swag of diamonds. At The University of Oxford, subfusc, the institution’s distinctive academic dress of black gown and white bow tie is flamboyant enough to see students on their way to exams, dinner – or the pub – waylaid by tourists’ cameras. Add a bottle of Bollinger and you’re transported straight to Brideshead. However, the word’s Latin origin, subfuscus (rather dark), points to the mortification of the body at a time when most of the men at the university would have entered the church. Black also evokes nefarious nocturnal shenanigans and, one imagines, has always been the colour of choice for poachers and housebreakers, for women wearing diamonds and for men blagging them.

Matriculation Day I

Subfusc on Merton Street, Oxford (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

In Man in Black, one of Caddy’s epigraphs is taken from Johnny Cash’s Man in Black. Cash’s line ‘I wear black for the poor and beaten down,’ promises a collection of poems of protest and solidarity. Later in the song, Cash sings that ”Till things are brighter, I’m the Man in Black’, suggesting that he’ll dress in drabs until judgement day. The revolutionary desire of this song and Cash’s doubtfulness about the possibility of effecting change provides Caddy’s poetry with a sombre, pessimistic frame.

Johnny Cash 2209720080

Johnny Cash (Photo credit: Heinrich Klaffs)

A Silence Opens, the collection’s first poem, ostensibly presents a village in decline: ‘No one I know or heard of / wants to live there now. / There are no signposts to the road. / The village bank closed long ago’. The abrupt end-stopped lines indicate that the village is dead but the present tense ‘wants’ reveals this as wishful thinking and the village continues to eek out its meagre existence. The locals retreat into a nostalgia which Caddy wryly characterises as racism and right wing politics: ‘Gnarled old-timers fretful, densely frugal, / hateful of the French and Labour, / long for pitchfork days, leaning into gates, / following distant hares, coursing’. As I write this post in North Oxfordshire, many cars carry bumper stickers demanding the repeal of Labour’s 2004 Hunting Act. So, perhaps Caddy’s Dorset village also functions symbolically as a countryside which feels itself betrayed by Westminster and his poem is an inverse of Heaney’s The Early Purges. In 1966, Heaney writes that ”Prevention of cruelty’ talk cuts ice in town / Where they consider death unnatural, / But on well-run farms pests have to be kept down’. In 2007, Caddy’s ‘holding grows thin / at the end of a dwindling track’. The paradox of growing thin points to the sheer effort involved in agriculture, even when it’s in decline.

English: Cranbourne Chase. Part of the Crown E...

Cranborne Chase (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Bloody Shard Gate, Caddy presents the past echoing through place names. ‘At this intersection we encounter a site / sticky with saps without visible signs / of earth stumbling things,’ he writes. That the place is described as a site to be encountered indicates that something significant happened there and that the place still has an indefinable presence. The lack of visible animal tracks reinforces this otherworldliness. Bloody Shard Gate near Cranborne Chase was the site of a fierce battle between gamekeepers and poachers and this conflict between the law and the men in black is presented with resistant ambiguity: ‘Still again in darkness ungrounded / spark, spots, throbbing blood clots, / cut-ups, pulsing bodies in semi-arrest, / far beyond Boehme’s dialogues, split // entrails, polyphonic Albion’s anti-furies, / the stubborn refusal to exonerate / and the crushing possibility that all / Truth is a shadow except the latest’. The poem’s internal rhyme creates a sense of secrecy, locking in its events as the reader is locked out. Albion’s polyphony rejects a single voice and whether we see poachers as heroes or villains is unclear: ‘all Truth / is a shadow’.

The Wounded Cavalier by William Shakespeare Burton

The Wounded Cavalier by William Shakespeare Burton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This fascination with names, places and history is sustained and, in Easter Day, ‘Restless vandals crawl through The Hangings’. Forests have ever been a magnet for criminals and outlaws and their ‘crawl’ recasts them as quadrupeds, as belonging there like the ‘lactating badgers intent / upon sunken worms’. Caddy’s poetry is richly observed and evokes place powerfully. ‘There’s an underlying resonance, / abandoned Cavalier, windscreen / empty and junkies , oblivious to cold / and possible squall, high / and blanked // Nearby farmers or poachers shoot / at rabbits or deer or gypsies’. The Cavalier is a superb detail: evidence of the lawlessness and magnetism of the spaces far from the watchful gaze of street lights and CCTV cameras. The Civil War hit this area hard and Caddy’s playful substitution of a dead Cavalier for an abandoned one suggests that all that changes is the nature of the litter. Looked at this way, abandoning cars could be seen as progress. The speaker’s uncertain attribution of the gunfire makes a similar point. In a few hundred years, the game of cat and mouse between poachers and those who would manage the estates remains unchanged and, in fact, there’s little in Caddy’s eyes to distinguish between them. The dark humour of ‘or gypsies’ adds a final, grotesque piece of common ground between these opposing groups, reminding us that, when it comes down to it, country folk are country folk and outsiders can go to hell. They share the right wing politics of the gnarled old-timers from A Silence Opens.

In Man in Black, Caddy requires his readers to sing for their supper. Most of the time this feels right, as intriguing places and names present us with questions and not with answers. Caddy’s exploration of Dorset history and landscape draws playful, illuminating parallels between the past and the present, and comments powerfully on the decline of the village.

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