David Constantine, Nine Fathom Deep

Steeped in learning, sophisticated in vocabulary, syntax and metre, highly wrought and sculpted to last, the poems in David Constantine’s latest volume offer the reader huge rewards.

Not the least of these is the pleasure of seeing familiar writers and artists through the eyes of someone who reacts to them with such direct and passionate engagement. For example, “26 Piazza di Spagna” gives devastating focus to the pain of Keats’ death. In itself, it is one of the most poignant poems inspired by the life of a writer that I’ve read. In context, it is one of a densely interconnected cluster of poems exploring how art, sex and love battle against time and death. How the battle is seen and felt shifts constantly, both between and within poems; in fact the same lines and phrases can seem at different moments to have radically different emotional weights. As one reads, radical shifts of feeling seem less like movements between one idea or point of view and another than like a changing, always provisional grasp on a single truth that cannot be seen or felt whole, and the separate poems come to seem like parts of a single larger one. The tone can be grim or sad, as the subject matter would imply; more often the dominant feelings are of energy, wonder, erotic rapture – as in the beautiful “The Woman in the House” – and even of humour.

The latter can be seen in “Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, Antiparos, 30 July 1700”. Here Constantine brilliantly sidesteps the obvious path of praising the great seventeenth century botanist for what he got right. Instead, he fuses celebration of science’s passion to know and wonder at the physical universe with comedy and pathos by evoking an occasion when de Tournefort got it – by our lights – absurdly wrong, imagining that he has discovered stones to be biologically alive. This discovery, de Tournefort feels, might make it easier for us to accept our own individual deaths by seeing them as entries into a larger life. In this poem, the gifts of Constantine the novelist and Constantine the lyric poet complement each other marvellously: on the one hand the poet draws us into and makes us feel de Tournefort’s rapture from the inside, sharing his excited sense of discovery, wonder and  delight; on the other, the three and a half lines introducing and concluding his speech create a quite different, detached perspective from which everything he says can look like manic babbling. What results is not a final undermining of one point of view by the other but a shimmering interplay between the two which won’t allow us to come to rest in either.

The love that battles death and ultimately must yield to it may be sexual. In this as in other books Constantine shows a rare gift for expressing how sensual pleasure and the vitality of desire can expand into a kind of visionary awe. However, two of the finest poems in this volume are about the love that survives when vitality and desire are gone. In “Frieze” the poet and (apparently) his children and grandchildren wheel his mother on a walk by the seaside and through a field of horses. She has entered her second childhood and Constantine describes her encounter with the horses in terms of a recovered Edenic innocence. The worlds of painting and sculpture, myth and modern reality interpenetrate in a language hovering between plainness and almost grandiloquent archaism in a way that is richly resourceful but has an extraordinary nakedness and vulnerability of feeling at its heart. “Photomontage” – the first poem in the volume – must be about Constantine’s mother too. It describes how a widow apparently sinking into Alzheimer’s cuts out a photograph of her face at eighteen and sticks it in the corner of a photograph of herself and her dead husband in their eighties in a final declaration of the happiness and love she once had. It’s a poem of astonishing tenderness and quiet power, poised between affirmation of love’s ability to transcend time and unflinching acceptance of the inevitability of love’s defeat by death. Most of the language could hardly be simpler, so that it seems completely grounded in the truths of ordinary life, but it develops with such precision, such syntactical delicacy and assurance, that it is able without jarring to take in and, so to speak, take on one of the most desperately grandiloquent affirmations in Shakespeare’s sonnets, “Love alters not with his [Time’s] brief hours and weeks, / But bears it out even to the edge of doom” – altering the words to the ambiguous “and didn’t we bear it out / To the edge and over the edge of doom?”

There are many particular poems that I’d like to discuss in detail – the strange and beautiful myth-making of “The Virgin, the Monk and the Girls” would be high on my list in one style, “The Floor of the Ammonites” with its density of allusion in another, the stark Brechtian “Children’s Crusade 1939” in another. I’d also like to be able to discuss the unique language Constantine has forged for himself, with its delicately expressive shifts between plainness and mannered formality, its idiosyncratic syntax and metrical virtuosity. He is a poet of wide-ranging interests and formal variety. However, the variety is combined with an obsessive return to key underlying preoccupations, so that the poems interact with each other in a way that develops tremendous cumulative power. This is a truly outstanding book.

I would like to thank Acumen for permission to reproduce this review, which I wrote for them and which appeared in issue 68.

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