A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 15 December 2010



Big river giving up what made it
It. No fighting visible
But all the colossal loss of self
Flat silent under a hemisphere
Of stillness. Then I'd only been
Three or four years on the dry land
Still wrapped in native wonder. I recall
This much: a level the lowest possible above
The sea and it
Was greening gold, sheep safely grazed, the lark
And curlew signed it differently, water
Holed and threaded it so that it blinked between
More dry than wet, more wet than dry,
An earth dissolving into steppingtufts and mud, the water
Salting. How I loved
My game of pondering a route
Dryfoot and intricate to the farthest out. I thought myself
Out there where the wavering decided on
The sea, the river,
Biggest imaginable, lapsed without any trace
And on the brink of guessing at a place
Of nowhere, nothing, no one evermore
I reached up for love's
Always waiting to be reached for hand.


After yesterday's poetry post I'm inspired to carry on awhile with some of my favourite poems. David Constantine is a name you may not be familiar with. However, in my opinion he's one of the UK's most thoughtful and interesting poets and short story writers (in fact he's just won this year's BBC National Short Story Award). David used to be a lecturer in the German Department at my old university, and he was a constant source of inspiration to me. His quietly captivating lectures, seminars and tutorials cemented and enhanced my own natural love of literature. I owe a great debt to him. He was one of the guiding intellectual lights of my life.

His poems are understated, carefully worked, subtly suggestive, resonant with myth and allusion. Estuarine is one of my favourite poems of his, a poem I've mentioned before on this blog. There are many things I like about this poem. First of all, what a wonderfully tangible description of a river estuary - ...  a level the lowest possible above / The sea and it / was greening gold ... ; ... water /  Holed and threaded it so that it blinked between / More dry than wet, more wet than dry, / An earth dissolving into steppingtufts and mud ... Second, what an astonishingly new, pristine, innocent, unclouded vision of this watery landscape he portrays as seen through the eyes of a very young child (but recollected through an adult mind). Next, what original and beautiful language he uses to encapsulate this vision - ...  the lark / And curlew signed it differently ... ; And on the brink of guessing at a place / Of nowhere ...

But what does it all add up to, what do we take away from the poem, what's the meaning? I think that the colossal loss of self is the clue. Estuaries are places where a river loses its identity in its comingling with mudflat and salt marsh. Where does the river become the sea? It's a confusing, amorphous area, a no-man's-land (yet a beautiful land). A child, feeling a little lost in this place and in need of reassurance, can reach up to grasp the hand of a parent - I reached up for love's / Always waiting to be reached for hand. Can we find the same reassurance as adults? Whose hand can we reach for? Or can we rationalize the 'lostness', because of our greater maturity and experience, and offer a helping hand to those who may reach out to us?

This is a marvellous poem, I think. Further resonances come from the Biblical allusions ( ... sheep safely grazed ... ) and the Wordsworthian overtones (Still wrapped in native wonder ... ) In fact I can never read this poem without being strongly reminded of Wordsworth's The Prelude and its emotions 'recollected in tranquillity'.

I would love to hear anyone else's responses to this accomplished and lovely poem.


gleaner said...

'Wrapped in native wonder' - what beautiful words.

It has a mysterious and earthy quality that seduces the reader - although I couldn't quite get it (I'm not strong with poetry) on first reading I was compelled to read it.

I'm coming back later to have another read!

Bonnie said...

Deliciously ripe with the wonder, illusion, burgeoning, inner conflict, (and even momentary regressions) of a child or adult on the cusp of risk and growth. My take, at any rate.

Thank you for sharing this Robert. I shall google Constantine to discover more of his work.

George said...

I find that some poems need to be revisited time and again before one can penetrate the deeper meanings. This appears to be such a poem. At first glance, however, my reaction is much the same as yours about the river's — and our — "colossal loss of self," losing the self to to the flat silence "under a hemisphere of stillness." I am also moved by the exclamation: "How I loved my game of pondering a route dryfoot and intricate to the farthest out." There's some notion here of joyfully losing one's self, one's definition and course, so that the mystery of pondering a new route, one that intersects with something mystical, can begin.

Perhaps I'm off track here, but this is my visceral reaction upon reading the poem for the first time. I will be interested in following the comments of others.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks all. Yes, I think all these things are in it. There are always depths, multi-meanings and resonances in Constantine's poems (and short stories - these are really superb, you must read some) which make them really satisfying, and I find one comes back to them time and again because of this. Although sometimes 'difficult', they are never obscure. I may post one more of his later today.

Ruth said...

Robert, you have done a very thorough job unleashing this beautiful poem. Prof. Constantine has done so much in this short space. I really like how he turns a phrase: flat silent . . . greening gold . . . to the farthest out . . . and that last line love's / Always waiting to be reached for hand. There is childlikeness in his words, appropriately.

Good poems are wonderful mines for harvesting what we will, the way several readers did in your Frost - Stopping by a Woods poem-post. You've found so much, and Bonnie and George too. Maybe Gleaner will find more in a second read.

What I find is a childlike wonder at the nature of spirituality. The river seeks the ocean. This of course is a symbol of our own spiritual journey, always moving toward that dissolving in the big ocean of the divine. Loss of self is an old bugaboo concept from my childhood (death to self) that was misappropriated for me. Now I understand it differently, as a good thing, as loss of ego. And he takes us to that ultimate annihilation: lapsed without any trace / And on the brink of guessing at a place / Of nowhere, nothing, no one evermore . . . . And the last lines could be about the final joining with that divine love.

Maybe I'm reading these things partly because tomorrow, Dec. 17, is Rumi's "wedding day" -- the anniversary of his death, and celebrated union with the divine, his lifelong desire.

The Solitary Walker said...

That's a wonderful contribution and interpretation, Ruth. Thanks so much for it. I'm really enjoying what's now become a little series of favourite poems. I hope they will continue to spark off such valuable and interesting comments from everyone.

Tramp said...

Thank you for another informative post pointing in the direction of an author and poet I was unaware of but am very much taken by.
There is a Czech song about life being like a river, some rivers reaching the sea earlier, some later.
I was very touched by Ruth's comments. As mid-winter approaches we should be in meditation, to make contact what is really of meaning rather than chasing our tails trying to buy some non-existent perfection. The candles and music of Advent should be for quiet reflection.
Yours reflectively

The Solitary Walker said...

I really enjoyed Ruth's comments too, Tramp. I'm glad you liked Constantine. I attended many of his lectures and seminars at Durham. For me, and I know for many others too, he was the inspirational force within the Modern Languages Department. I'll be posting another of his poems shortly.

I liked very much your thoughts on winter, Advent and meditation. I think you point to what is the true meaning of this strange time just before Christmas and the New Year.