The True Gods Attend You
Clarence Caddell, Bonfire Books, 2022, 71 pages, £11.80
MICHAEL YOST finds a collection of original religiously-inspired verse rather forced
There are two major traditions pertinent to verse literature that are seldom engaged in, but for all that are the more interesting when an artist does make use of them: the theological and imaginative Christian tradition of faith, and the much more practical tradition of formal verse craft.
In most people’s minds, the two probably go together; one thinks of the Anglican John Keble’s Christian Year, the Roman Catholic James Matthew Wilson, or the American Protestant Longfellow, all of whom reward the interest of their readers. However, the major religious tradition of the West is less often engaged today, and many Christian poets take the outward and visible signs of form as Luther and Zwingli took the outward and visible signs of the Eucharist: conventional, and unessential.
T.S. Eliot suggested in his essay Religion and Literature that what was needed was not religous literature in the obvious, propagandizing manner of a Keble or Chesterton, but rather the unconsciously religious literature of a Dante or a Joyce. As I have suggested in another essay, Eliot’s idea of the relation between religion and literature also is true of any set of first principles, or overarching metaphysics; the reason Eliot sought for an unconsciously religious literature was because he wished religion to inform the bones and marrow, the form and substance of literature, not merely decorate it with the furniture of, say early-mid-twentieth century Anglo-Catholicism. In brief, the law of craft is the law of belief, or philosophical conviction, or more often, the lack of those things.
This is not to say that formal verse is always the work of deists. But it is per se the work of people who have some stake in things as ordered, even if the order is conventional, or merely conservative in character. Here we come to Clarence Caddell’s The True Gods Attend You, a chapbook published by Bonfire Books, the Australian press. What makes Caddell interesting is that his poems do often address religious themes; but in each case they are pitched with a deep and seemingly impenetrable irony. In reading them, I cannot help but place them in the category of consciously religious.
This is largely because the primary concern of the poems is, as in a devotional poem, religion and religious experience. The difference is that the religious poems are counter-propaganda; they are devotional poems in reverse. Not much to their credit, the poems’ engagement with religion largely draws from the fragmentary and derivative gnostic texts of the Church’s early period, as well as two books that each propose a conspiracy-theorist’s account of the origins of Christianity. There are poems of some formal merit, such as Initiations, The Golem, Passover Feasts of the New Covenant, Elegy With an Omen, and A Mobius Wedding Band; as well as a long blank verse narrative poem, The Candidate. These I would single out among the collection as poems whose ideas are engaging, but more importantly, solidly executed. In many of the other poems, there is a distinct lack of metrical control. Cadell’s hand is often shaky as he tries to unpack complex situations, parallels, and resonances within a brief space. Trochees, eye rhymes, weak rhymes, (such as the anachronistically signaled elision “o’er” that exists in order to rhyme with “floor”) and awkward syntax abound, marring an energetic idea, crippling a final stanza, and perhaps most difficult, undermining the authority of Cadell, the poet and speaker. On one or two occasions the concrete situation of the poem is nearly impossible to discern.
There is also a distinct difference between the poems that rely on history, the re-formulated symbolism of the Gnostics, or the tendentious and ludicrous thesis that Christianity was a political invention of the Flavian dynasty, and the poems that seem to draw from Caddell’s own experiences of life, love, and loss. The aforementioned poems can be by turn, difficult, energetic, and reliant upon an imaginative world inherited by Caddell. When they succeed, they succeed because Caddell unlocks their complexity, which pours out in a torrential fashion reminiscent of the metaphysical poems of John Donne. This is the case in the Blakean Initiations. But where they fail, it is because that complexity has failed to materialize in an ordered way. Caddell’s more intimate poems, by contrast, work precisely because that same intricacy is in play, but in a context that is both familiar, tender, and surprising, such as A Mobius Wedding Band. But even here the shield of irony is raised. I wish to turn to that particular poem as a success: an English sonnet that treats of married love; a love that is painful and yet inseparable, desired and feared. It plays with the same themes of distance, suffering, betrayal and desire that another of his poems, Vicar of Christ, engages; but with a more perfect union between form and content, a clearer direction and drive moving through the entire poem, and a perfect complication of the symbolic ring of marriage. Here, the symbol seems to truly mean something, even in its reversal.
The Candidate, the longest poem in the collection, details the conversion and reversion of a family man to and from the Roman Catholic Church, or at least, a parodic vision of that church. Throughout the poem, the sincerity of his spiritual search is pushed back against, and ultimately revealed as an expression of his own narcissistic quest for “religious experience.” The heavy-handed moral is that the candidate should avaunt church-shopping and return from its distractions to his wife and family. It is singular insofar as it depicts an often undepicted subculture within Catholicism. But it does not ascend above the level of caricature.
Earlier in the review, I suggested that “the law of craft is the law of belief, or philosophical conviction, or more often, the lack of those things.” How does this apply in Caddell’s case? The True Gods Attend You stands half within the world of traditional religious expression (if ironically so), and half out of it. Likewise, Caddell has difficulty fully achieving coherence and rigor of poetic expression. His poems are indeed “formalist” as the blurb of the chapbook declares. But often the poems are (it seems unintentionally) rumpled. In both cases, it is hard for a Christian reader not to suggest that both constitute a falling away – an imperfect or misunderstood discipline. In sum, there is something to commend the originality and force, as well as the wit behind The True Gods Attend You. Caddell has skill, and an idiosyncratic vision. What remains to be seen is whether both, in time, develop.
MICHAEL YOST is an essayist and poet living in rural New Hampshire with his wife and children. His essays and poems can be read at Crisis Magazine, Dappled Things, the St. Austin Review and Hearth and Field, as well as at his website, poetryofmichaelyost.com.