David Constantine, Belongings – review

If Glenday’s Selected Poems persistently look inwards, those of David Constantine’s Belongings are focused outwards, on the world around the poet. A short review can’t do justice to their range, seriousness, individuality or challenge. They pay extremely close attention to what in ‘Maps’ Constantine calls ‘the holy particulars’: individual people, animals, trees and events at specific times and in specific places. This is where he finds the solidity and significance he describes as ‘presence’. Sometimes they involve large, easily recognizable social issues, but the focus is always on the concrete and particular, not the abstract and general. Wider connections are coaxed out of specific detail, often in ways that involve bending normal syntax to channel sense and emphasis, as in this opening of ‘Young woman asleep’:

Another for want of footfall
Closed – what was it ever? I can’t remember – but now
At least its doorway has become a kip
And she’s out of the drizzle and in the dismal daylight

There she sleeps and of her shows
From among the damp blankets and her few belongings
Only her face
Quiet as a child.

It took me a moment to realise that ‘Another’ meant ‘another shop’, touching on the death of the high street. More generally, the odd syntax of the first six lines makes us think hard about what we see. It also makes us feel Constantine’s embarrassed sense that his gaze at the woman may be intrusive and his awareness that he can only guess how much forced calculation there is in how she shows herself.  But the real payoff of the awkward syntax comes from its contrast with the heart-stopping simplicity of ‘only her face / quiet as a child’.

This is typical of the way these poems work. Moments of immediate lyrical beauty are rare, not only among the poems but even within those poems in which they do occur. This gives such moments their special power: they don’t come across as givens of style or a general attitude to life but as the naked expression of sudden shifts of feeling, as in ‘Abandoned bulb fields under Samson Hill’ when a description of the hard lives and labour of commercial bulb growers gives way to celebration of the beauty of narcissi still growing from bulbs they’ve left behind:

It is thirty years or more since, after twice that toll
Of struggle, worry, eye on the clock and the weather, the tenants departed
And let the ploughed rows loose into idle beauty.

Constantine is a distinguished novelist and short story writer as well as a poet. These poems show his compassionate interest in other people’s lives and his skill in presenting them, whether by narrative description or dramatic monologue. People’s minds and feelings are embedded in their bodies and biology, their individual life stories and relationships, the wider structures of society and processes of history, geography, the environment. Perhaps a novelist is particularly alert to this fact. Certainly Constantine is, and these different elements of life are densely interwoven through all the poems, with more and more connections emerging as one rereads.

David Constantine, Belongings, 104pp, £10.99, Bloodaxe Books Ltd, Eastburn, South Park, Hexham, Northumberland NE46 1BS

I would like to thank Ann and Peter Sansom and Suzannah Evans for permission to post this extract from my review of books by John Glenday, David Constantine and Sean Borodale in issue 65 of The North.

Leave a Reply