REVIEW by Éadaoín Lynch NWR Issue 104
by David Constantine
As co-editor of Modern Poetry in Translation
from 2004-2013 and commissioning editor for the Oxford Poets imprint of Carcanet Press, David Constantine has ample critical experience in the realm of poetry, and it is palpably evident in his tenth collection, Elder
. This collection, published on his seventieth birthday, deftly displays his lyricism, precision and powerful grasp of language with poems such as ‘A Local Habitation’, a moving tribute to the connection of intimacy and memory between lovers: ‘one day elsewhere / … / you will look up / And, missing something, for one split second not / Know what it is….’
Constantine’s poetic landscape is populated with English and Welsh localities, moving occasionally to the Aegean Sea and southern France, all the while offering a prominent love of the sea, expressive retellings of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
, translations of Friedrich Hölderlin, and more contemplative ruminations on countryside scenes, sculptures, and the sky. In his Ovidian poems, such as ‘Baucis and Philemon’, the famous story of the two lovers turned into trees, his meditations conclude with lines as moving as ‘For all we know beneath / The concrete there’s a seed of them one day the fires will wake.’ This conflation of ancient story and modern life is representative of the ways in which Constantine marries his thematic preoccupations – he is continually looking for the past in the present. In translating, and completing, seven of Hölderlin’s poetic fragments, he acknowledges that ‘they reach out from the borders of his alienation for future readers to continue them.’ A piece of writing is not a self-contained vehicle of meaning; he maintains that expression is eternal.
Constantine equally draws contrast between nature and artifice, beauty and austerity, reality and the supernatural, in his title poem. Elder trees are known in folklore as repellents of evil spirits, while yielding both flowers and fruit that can be used for medicinal purposes. He actively engages with ‘Elder that is kith and kin with eldritch’, and writes of the nourishment reaped from its harvest. There is a duality at work within this poem that sets the pace for the rest of the collection and its use of metaphor through myth.
The collection is separated into six sections, each overlapping in terms of theme and imagery, but constructed so that each individual section acts as an independent carrier of meaning, with every poem feeding off the next. Section 5 opens with ‘Foxes, Rain’, a poem concerning a neighbour in pain, his lack of appetite contrasted by the foxes eviscerating his rubbish bags, ‘sickened / How much there was to eat still in his guts’. Its successor, ‘Bread, Full moon’, muses on a friend of the narrator who ‘Went into dust along with Iridium / … / He cannot be nourished now.’ The section’s preoccupation with food and death continue in ‘The makings of his breathing…’ where the narrator attempts to ‘speak and listen’ to his friend ‘as we always did / But he has no breath now and we can’t resume.’ The poem lacks all punctuation aside from one comma in the middle of the second stanza – the lack of a full stop at the end echoes the inconclusive relationship that ‘can’t resume’. The ruminations on illness, nourishment, and grief, are rounded off with ‘Cloud Opening, 19 February 2012’, the conclusion of Section 5, which delineates how ‘The occluding cloud was pierced and a cold slant / Of sun cut through the fretted rushes / … / His being carried over further off / Than this sweet morning’s sun that thrives in flames.’
Constantine’s masterful collection encompasses the spectrum of human experience with sensitivity and breadth of vision. As he writes in ‘High Tide, Early, 19 February 2011’: ‘nothing / Is asked of you but that you listen.’
is a contributor to New Welsh Review
previous review: Subtly Worded
next review: His Last Fire