Elder by David Constantine, Bloodaxe Books, £9.95 paperback

This is a moving and deeply humane book. Different qualities combine to make it a must-have for anyone whose poetic tastes are at all like mine.

For one thing, there’s Constantine’s mastery of the singing line. In many of these poems, the rhythms, the play of sound and the controlled fluidity of the syntax are intense pleasures in themselves. However, Constantine knows to use such qualities sparingly, keeping us on our toes by disrupting smooth rhythms and syntax with angularity and roughness, throwing grit and dissonance into the music, emphasising the expressiveness of sound rather than its harmony. In short, his purely lyrical gifts get their full force from the way they’re both complemented and thrown into relief by gifts of a different kind. As well as a poet he’s a distinguished novelist and short story writer. A poem called “House by the ancient agora” will illustrate how much even brief lyrical poems can be given their shape by what is essentially a narrative arc:

So you can step down from your garden
And go under the capacious planes and poplars
Into a habitat of terrapins and dragonflies
And many reminders of streets and occupations.
There for example is a place where the nymphs were worshipped
And that is a conduit for the mountain’s cold water.
I should think there is more of the old town in your cellar.
You are a later deposit
Still lying awake and listening to the sea.

 Though there’s something magical about the first two lines, it doesn’t derive from anything obvious in the expression, unless it be the mysterious “So” with its suggestion of different possible narrative contexts. For seven lines, both language and rhythms are pretty flat. What’s gripping is the sense of involvement in a miniature story of discovery that develops through a series of twists to its startling conclusion. When the literal language of these seven lines gives way to the haunting metaphors of the last two, it’s as if the floor had dropped from under us, precipitating us out of our secure footing in time and space, surrounding us with visionary glimpses and expanding perspectives. In the context of the book as a whole, images of rivers and the sea have recurred and accumulated a rich, powerful and diverse suggestiveness. In the local context of this poem, “still” creates a shimmer of different timescales, the hours of a day, the years of a life, the millennia of archaeology. Now, too, that mastery of rhythm and auditory suggestiveness that I talked about earlier suddenly suffuses the writing: as well as breathing a sense of hushed awe into the last line, Constantine makes us hear the hiss and flow of the sea in the surges of its cadences and in its sibilants and liquid ls.

Poem after poem gives a similar impression of receiving a revelation. A kiteboarder is suddenly seen as “the glance and dazzle of an angel”; swallows arrive on an island “Like thoughts from nowhere”, “voracious, and like the imagination’s / Sudden joyous connecting fall to feeding”. As that image suggests, these epiphanies are neither simply given from outside the poet nor spun from his own entrails; they’re perceptions of the world beyond him that are actively pursued by his hungry imagination. Beauty, joy and wonder are what he seeks and repeatedly finds, but to find them he has to fight through a great deal of ugliness and pain – the ugliness of what people do to each other and the world, the pain that is part of the condition of mortality. From beginning to end, the book is haunted by the knowledge that we must die. Two moving poems, “The makings of his breathing …” and “For a while after a death …” are apparently about the death of a close friend. Others depict the tombs, memorials and death-masks of the long dead. There’s nothing depressed or lugubrious about them though. Staring unblinkingly at death, as other poems stare unblinkingly at cruelty and ugliness, they counterpoise it with a sense of the strength of life, of love, joy, wonder and desire.

One of the things that gives Constantine’s work its peculiar value is the extent to which it’s fed by different European traditions. Among the outstanding achievements of this volume are versions of Ovidian myths. In “Erisychthon and his daughter Mestra” (considerably expanded from Ovid), the greedy tyrant Erisychthon offends Demeter by cutting down a sacred oak to build a banqueting hall. She curses him with unappeasable hunger, and after he’s consumed everything edible in his kingdom he’s forced to wander with his daughter Mestra, whom he prostitutes to buy food. The ecological resonances of the tale are obvious but they’re only a small part of its power. In Constantine’s telling, it grips you by its sheer clarity, memorability and force as story. It’s fraught with multiple, ambiguous implications about life in a way only story and drama can be. The poet’s job is to make these implications shine out of the words and strike the imagination of his reader. I hope a short quotation can show how triumphantly Constantine succeeds:

                                                 They began their progress
Mestra and the king with the cavernous bright eyes
Working the frontier, day after day, from house to house
She continued her education in the school of hunger
And in every house they left a feeling of infamy
And longings as keen as the start of a starvation …

I would like to thank Patricia Oxley for permission to repost this review, which I wrote for Acumen.


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