My kind of poetry: David Constantine
I’m feeling something of a fraud, having recently read the latest spat about the Oxford poetry professorship concerning one Todd Swift. I’ve never heard of him. It reminds me yet again that I know next to nothing about the world of contemporary poetry, who’s in, who’s out, who’s round about. And yet here I am again, spouting about poems and poets.However, it provides a hook for today’s post, which is the first of two in which I’ll celebrate the poetry of David Constantine.
The link is this: I was barely aware of David Constantine until about four years ago. It seems to me now like being unaware of, say, Geoffrey Hill or Tony Harrison. How did it happen? Perhaps because despite being a much-acclaimed translator, the co-editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, and author of a stunning Bloodaxe Collected Poems, he attracts no controversy, his work is crafted, elegant, and educated (as well as passionate, humane, and given to wearing its heart on its sleeve). In short, he is not fashionable. For me, he sits alongside Harrison, Fanthorpe, Causley and MacCaig; but apart from Kim Moore in one of her blog posts, no one had ever said to me have you read x or y by David Constantine? So I’m taking a punt on some of you out there, like me, not knowing, and I’m hoping that after you’ve read this, you, like me, will want to rush out and buy his Collected Poems.
I met him by accident at a reading/party for the 30th birthday of the Poetry Business at Dean Clough in Halifax. I was reading from my new first collection and David was top of the bill.
It was wonderful. He reads apparently effortlessly, he reads the meaning of the words, so it sounds like unrehearsed speech until you become aware of the patterning of rhythm, of rhyme, the lovely craftedness of it. I bought his Collected Poems (more than embareassed to find it was only £12 and my collection was £9.95. Jeepers) and once I’d finished a year of reading Fanthorpe, I spent a year of reading David’s poems, three or four every morning, listening to the work of words, the deft management of unobtrusive rhyme and assonance, relishing the huge range of reference, the lightly-worn scholarship, the management of voices. I heard him reading again quite recently, and took a punt on asking him to be a guest on The Wider Web. He said yes. He’s a generous man. I like this introduction to him. I’ve managed to lose the source, for which mea culpa … .but it says what I’d like to have said myself.
“He was born in 1944 in Salford, an urban landscape of factories, red-brick terraces and mizzle-grey skies, the Lowry backdrop to his childhood with a nimbus of 'visionary dreariness' quite particular to that part of England. Some of his poems home in on this familiar prehistory and its memorable characters, while others range across the mysterious mythical world of faraway Greece, inspired by epiphanies beneath the clanging skies above the Aegean … Constantine fuses the compressed stoical grit of the one with the lyrical flexibility of the other to create an intense poetic voice … He is a maker of poems, a craftsman as well as messenger … [whose] poems arrive freighted with authority.”
I also latched on to another description of his work that draws attention to the way that he seems to fly under the fashionable radar.
“David Constantine, a scholar-poet whose considerable poetic achievement mysteriously wants the wider appreciation it deserves, considering its emotional range, its mastery of formal and linguistic variety, its lyrical intensity and disarming confessional intimacy, these all finely attuned by a keenly attentive ear. It is contemporary poetry which unfashionably, and unexpectedly perhaps, makes frequent use of forms, ideas and associations buried deep in a grand European poetic tradition.”
Some readers, startlingly, don’t get it. As in this extract from a review of David Constantine’s Collected Poems in Magma 31:“David Constantine's Collected is not complete, comprising the poems from his seven previous Bloodaxe collections which he wishes to keep in print together with the poems in two limited editions and some new poems. Reading the 350 pages, I am struck, first, by how few poems deal centrally with other people, that is people in the present world, not in myth or history, who are determinably separate from the poet. A series of early poems describes people and their ends with decided lack of sympathy."
This reviewer seems to inhabit a different universe from mine. It is someone, it seems, who is incapable of reading what’s there in plain sight. Let me show you how astonishingly wrong he was. Let’s start with a poem from one of David Constantine's earliest collections, A brightness to cast shadows (1980]) I chose this to show his lyricism, and the way he can stop a moment like a held breath.
But most you are like
But most you are like
The helpless singing of birds
To whom the light happens
On whom it falls
And at whose purity of voice
The skies weep and there is a pause
In all the world before beginning
And before the ending
Some of the moments he stops in time are accurately bleak, looking unwaveringly at the space between life and death, and between the dark and the light..the space where the poetry goes.
A lamb lay under the thorn, the black
Thorn bending by the last broken wall
And grasping what it can.
The dead lamb picketed a ewe.
She cropped round, bleating
And chewing in that machinal way of sheep.
And although she backed to a safe distance,
When I climbed down towards her lamb
Through a gap in the wall,
It was as if painfully paying out the fastening cord.
The crow was there, also
At a safe distance, waiting for the ewe to finish;
And sidled off a further yard or so
Waiting until I too should have finished.
For me, it spins round that unnerving observation, “The dead lamb picketed a ewe”. There’s a double-take when you suddenly see the umbilical cord that links the living to the dead, and then the camera pulls back, and there’s the crow, waiting. I love the clarity of it all, the exactness of the line breaks, and the way the capitalised lines slow you down, make you pay attention to the heft of each line. I actually queried his preference for what I carelessly called ‘an older tradition’, this business of capitalisation. He put me right on that:
“About initial capitals – what you call ‘the old tradition’ – I’ve always set my lines like that and I think the (in practice very fast) reappraising of the syntax from line to line is a good thing. Lineation plays a critical part in causing the mind to (however briefly) pause in its grasping after sense, in which pause it entertains possibilities, which is a good thing. The capitalisation is a marker or gentle enforcer of that process.”
So I’ll ask you to keep that in mind as you work your way through the rest of the poems and extracts. Read them aloud is my advice.
When I began to read the Collected Poems, though there were so many of those ‘moments that draw you in’ I was brought up short by a sequence which is essential a praise poem to his Grandma, widowed during the first world war. Light and dark is a leitmotif through so many of the poems, and memorably so in the notion that the dead “glimmer for a generation” and unless we constantly attend to them they will lose their (lovely word) luminance.
from In Memoriam 8571 Private J.W.Gleave
who was at Montauban, Trônes Wood, and Guillemot
There are some dead we see and even see by;
They glimmer for a generation, our looking
Lends them more luminance.
We saw a similar light dawn on the woman
Who had been a widow more than fifty years.
She lingered in the doorway of the living room
Impelled as people leaving are to say
Some word more than goodnight
The women stood by, they followed the post like crows:
So the news came from Guillemot to Salford 5
After lapse of weeks during which time
She had known no better than to believe herself a wife.
But by November the congregation of widows
Being told it was a reasonable sacrifice
Their men had made saw mutilated trees bedecked
With bloody tatters and being nonetheless
Promised a resurrection of the body
They saw God making their men anew out of
The very clay. These women having heard from soldiers
However little from the battlefield
Towards All Saints gathered black gouts from the elder
Among their children stared at the holy tree
And envied Christ his hurts fit to appear in.
There being no grave, there being not even one
Ranked among millions somewhere in France,
Her grief went without where to lay its head.
Constantine returns to the business of his Grandma in his collection The pelt of wasps, in 1998, with this poem. Angry and tender at once; a memorial for all those women his grandma represents, the ones who were left, like my own grandma, to bring up their children, to count the pennies, to soldier on.
We need another monument. Everywhere
Has Tommy Atkins with his head bowed down
For all his pals, the alphabetical dead,
And that is sweet and right and every year
We freshen the whited cenotaph with red
But no one seems to have thought of her standing her
In all the parishes in bronze or stone
With bags, with heavy bags, with bags of spuds
And flour and tins of peas and clinging kids
Lending the bags their bit of extra weight –
Flat-chested little woman in a hat,
Thin as a rake, tough as old boots, with feet
That ache, ache, ache. I’ve read
He staggered into battle carrying sixty pounds
Of things for killing with. She looked after the pence,
She made ends meet, she had her ports of call
For things that keep body and soul together
Like sugar, tea, a loaf, spare ribs and lard,
And things the big ship brings that light the ends
Of years, like oranges. On maps of France
I’ve trailed him down the chalky roads to where
They end and her on the oldest A to Z
Down streets, thin as a wraith, year in, year out
Bidding the youngest put her best foot forward,
Lugging the rations past the war memorial.
It reads so easily, it’s so instantly accessible and memorable, you hardly notice the craft of it, its rhetorical ease, those half-rhymes and internal rhymes, and what you remember is the tenderness, the anger. David Constantine will take you from familiar urban landscapes to worlds of myth and legend, those strange distant landscapes which, you discover with a sort of shock, still penetrate our uncomfortable present”
This was a pleasant place.
This was a green hill outside the city.
Who would believe it now? Unthink
The blood if you can, the pocks and scabs,
The tendrils of wire. Imagine an apple tree
Where that thing stands embedded.
The flat earth is felloed with death.
At every world’s end, in some visited city,
Diminished steps go down into the river of death.
(From Mappa Mundi )
See that amazing conflation of myth, religion, history, all time present in the vulnerable ‘now’. The apple trees of the Hesperides and of Eden, Golgotha and barbed wire. The whole world deserving of an inundation. David Constantine is drawn to cataclysmic flood, to Atlantean myths, and conflagration; I thought about this when I read one critic querying what Hiroshima had to do with Pompeii. David’s a year younger than I. We were at grammar school when the first H-bomb was exploded; in Liverpool, in Manchester, in London and elsewhere you could walk through bombed landscapes still. This was the 1950s. I had no doubt that I would never see 21. If you grow up in a shadow, you’re always conscious that lights can go out. I love this next poem, not least because of that:
The quick and the dead at Pompeii
I cannot stop thinking about the dead at Pompeii.
It was in the Nagasaki and Hiroshima month.
They did not know they were living under a volcano.
The augurers watched a desperate flight of birds
And wondered about it in the ensuing silence.
There was sixty feet of ash over Pompeii.
It was seventeen centuries before they found the place.
Nobody woke when the sun began again,
Nobody danced. The dead had left their shapes.
The mud was honeycombed with the deserted forms of people.
Fiorelli recovered them with a method the ancients
Invented for statuary. When he cast their bodies
And cracked the crust of mud they were born again
Exactly as they had died. Many were struck
Recumbent, tripped, wincing away, the clothing
Rolled up their backs. They were interrupted:
A visting woman was compromised for ever,
A beggar hugs his sack, two prisoners are in chains.
Everyone died as they were. A leprous man and wife
Are lying quietly with their children between them.
The works of art at Pompeii were a different matter.
Their statues rose out of mephitic holes bright-eyed.
The fresco people had continued courting and feasting
And playing mythological parts: they had the hues
Of Hermione when Leontes is forgiven.
What do I take from this? The nakedness of the human condition, a people without defence. And, I suppose, the echo of Larkin’s ‘what will survive of us is love’. Like the quietness of the leprous man and wife.
In another poem in the sequence the figures of Demeter and Persephone are uncovered having “survived a bombardment of hot stones”
Nobody loved the earth better than Demeter did
Who trailed it miserably
Calling after her child and nobody’s gifts
Withheld were more pined after.
Mother and daughter passed north
From prince to prince and latterly
Survived the fire in Dresden. How Pompeii
Seen from the air resembles sites of ours:
Roofless, crusty. Look where Persephone
Wound in rags
Leads blinded Demeter by the hand
Seeking an entrance to preferable Hades.
(‘Mother and daughter’)
There it is again, that insistence on the connections of myth, of history, Demeter’s agony and the death of growing things in the landscapes of Dresden , and I suppose, of his own Salford.
Now, from cataclysmic fire to cataclysmic water. David lives in the Isles of Scilly, a drowned landscape off the ria coast of Cornwall, where Atlantis seems entirely possible if not actually present:
It dies hard, the notion of a just people;
The wish that there should have been once mutual aid
Dies very hard. Through fire and ghastly ash and any
Smothering weight of water still we imagine
A life courteous and joyful; see them lightly clad
Loving the sun, the vine and the grey olive.
Over the water from trading, they come home winged
With sails, their guide and harbinger the white dove.
The sea suddenly stood up vertical, sky-high
Bristling with the planks of their peaceful ships.
The first line is one I can’t forget, and never want to; living as we do in a world that seems suddenly willing to destroy everything that approaches the respect and love of what we casually call ‘community’. David will take you memorably into the not too distant past, and the present, too, as in his poems about the days in the Scillies, after storm and shipwreck when the islanders gathered whatever flotsam brought to their shore, and when ‘the harvests were golden’ :
Mother has linen from the Minnechaha,
I bought the ship’s bell for half a sovereign
From Stanley, our dumb man.
Everyone has something, a chair, a bit of brass
And nobody wakes hearing a wind blow
Who does not hope there’ll be things come in
Worth having, but today
Was a quiet morning after a quiet night.
The bay was coloured in
With bobbing oranges. What silence
Till we we pitched into it
Knee-deep the women holding out their skirts
And the men thrashing in boats
We made an easy killing
We took off multitudes
And mounded them in the cold sun.
When Matty halved one with his jack-knife
It was good right through, as red
As garnet, he gave the halves
His girls who sucked them out.
The beams we owe the sea
Are restless tonight but every home
Is lit with oranges. They were close,
She says, or else the salt
Would have eaten them. Whose popping eyes,
I wonder, say them leave,
Roaring like meteors
When the ship in a quiet night
Bled them, and they climbed
Faster than rats in furious shining shoals
In firm bubbles and what
Will tumble in our broken bay tomorrow?
I could go on and on and on, but I see this is a longer post than usual. I need to stop. I hope you’re converted if you weren’t already. Last word from David:
"Poetry now, every bit as much as in the Romantic age, is a utopian demonstration, by aesthetic means, of what true freedom would be like. It engages us to imagine something better than what at present we are afflicted with; it helps keep hope alive; it incites us to make more radical demands. And poetry does that out of the enjoyment of its own autonomy, which it is duty-bound not to forfeit."
A real treat coming up. A shorter post, but a rich one. Six new poems from David Constantine’s forthcoming collection Belongings, due out from Bloodaxe in early 2020. See you next week.