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David Constantine
Collected Poems
Bloodaxe (2004), £12
ISBN 1852246677

A Living Language
Bloodaxe (2004), £7.95
ISBN 185224688X


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    Peter McDonald


According to the blurb on the back of David Constantine's Collected Poems, 'his poetry stands outside the current literary climate'. While this is true, and to be welcomed, his poetry undoubtedly belongs to the same tradition that has nourished so much of what is now taken to be the mainstream of contemporary poetry - one's experience of climate depends largely on where one is standing. The fact remains, though, that his work has been passed over by the august arbiters of the various Generations that have graced our broadsheets in recent years. What is it then that contributes to his nonconformist status, his position as eccentric outsider?

From the first volume collected here (A Brightness to Cast Shadows) we are in the presence of the genuinely strange, in both subject matter and language. This earlier work is imbued with the spirit of early twentieth-century imagism, but with an other-worldliness that sets it apart from the domestic etiolations of much current, observational, poetry:

I love coltsfoot that they
Make their appearance into life among dead grass:
Larches, that they
Die colourfully among sombre immortals.

   ('Coltsfoot and Larches')
In a recent review of this Collected, Sasha Dugdale observes how in the long poem 'Caspar Hauser', we encounter 'thousands of … strange and shocking images of civilisation … until the reader reels, as Hauser must have done himself.' But this estrangement is endemic to Constantine's poetry as a whole, and is enacted not only in the 'strange and shocking images' but at the level of syntax itself. Of the former category, the strange image, there are plenty of examples. Soldiers in a pillbox wait for 'A hand to rise out of the earth / To post us flames'; Christ's apostles travel 'And convert the charnel lands / Where our brothers and sisters still go cutting themselves'; whales sound each other out 'With a strange phoning, like owls'. His diction is the real thing strange, however, with tiny syntactical slippages or unexpected constructions contributing to a pervasive discomfort. It is often just a matter of a shifted clause or a dropped preposition, but it's enough to make the reader spend a bit more time with the poem, acclimatising himself to the new light:
Not sensible, too perilous, watching black
Burst slowly from the heart. If fell,
More like a brainless stone, not like a crow.
The red sops up the black. It welcomes it. […]

Get back, on hands and knees snuffling a track
While there's still blood in the sky, get back
To the B & B and your scented mate
Between silk sheets after her bath, get her on you

To practise, practise, practise the kiss of life.

    ('On the Cliffs, Boscastle')
Why this stubborn strangeness? These poems remind me of Auden's 1929, in which winter is justified as 'A forethought of death that we may find ourselves at death / Not helplessly strange to the new conditions.' Constantine's best poems are forethoughts of death which force us to encounter 'new conditions' each time. But while the descent into Avernus may be easy ('I know the way / Into the hillside / Through the eye of a lamb' ('Lamb'), Constantine's poetic practice, as the recent Poetry Primer makes clear, is as much informed by pleasure as it is by death. Or rather, the two principles, pleasure and death, are opposite sides of the same obol. It is the poet's job, not only to show us the many routes into the earth, but also to remind us to be grateful for the pleasures granted us before we go.

Estrangement is part and parcel of Constantine's close contact with foreign languages that has resulted in a series of translations from French, German and Greek. In A Living Language, which gathers the three lectures Constantine gave at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in 2003, he speaks of 'A syntax and an idiom marked by the writer's "service abroad"'. Certainly, his own syntax has been marked by the intimate rigours of translation; one is example is Hölderlin, whose 'hypotaxis', Constantine says, involves 'sentences riding in strict metre over a dozen or more long lines of verse.' We see this practice throughout the Collected Poems, for example in parts of the celebrated elegy 'In Memoriam 8571 Private J.W. Gleave'. Again, pleasure is the guiding principle here; Constantine, still talking about Hölderlin's metre, goes on to say that 'this cumulative rhythm … is achieved precisely in "the loving quarrel" (his phrase) with prosodic requirement.' The strangeness the reader feels in the face of his poetry, then, is the result of a series of encounters with the outlandish, encounters in which poetic utterance takes on a performative function. Initially, as Constantine says: 'the foreign language … presses upon the translator who will react more or less self-assertively in the encounter'. The next encounter is 'the loving quarrel' between the writer and the strictures of his craft. Finally, the poem encounters its reader, who will be struck by its strangeness. Constantine's image of a nation's literature inventing itself, 'pull[ing] itself up by its bootstraps' by means of a self-assertive reaction to and appropriation of other nations' languages, is a model for the performative encounter enacted by the poem itself, creating its own law in a moment of assertive transgression. This declaration of independence is what Constantine means by 'the autonomy of the lyric', the autonomy that marks his poetry out from the climate enjoyed by his contemporaries.

Some encounters are more fruitful than others. I will end with an excerpt from a German interview with Constantine, translated thanks to the Babelfish website. Amidst the less successful sentences there were a few which struck their own note of eloquent strangeness. Here it is - not quite Constantine, not quite a computer, but something in between:
The islands are to me for already 30 years a living find pit of pictures. That has to do particularly with the sea, remains never alike separates always changes depending upon light, wind, weather. Ebb-tide and tide are there tremendous - I mean, the whole auessere form of the islands, the whole relationship between water and terra company, change twice daily kolossal. … Ebb-tide and tide, constant uncovering and covering, affect marvellously disturbingly me. And to be worried, is vitally necessary to me. Much that in former times was visible, is nowadays under the water. Full moon and extraordinary ebb-tide let it appear again.


© Signals 2005