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

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Watching For Dolphins

Watching for Dolphins

In the summer months on every crossing to Piraeus
One noticed that certain passengers soon rose
From seats in the packed saloon and with serious
Looks and no acknowledgement of a common purpose
Passed forward through the small door into the bows
To watch for dolphins. One saw them lose

Every other wish. Even the lovers
Turned their desires on the sea, and a fat man
Hung with equipment to photograph the occasion
Stared like a saint, through sad bi-focals; others,
Hopeless themselves, looked to the children for they
Would see dolphins if anyone would. Day after day

Or on their last opportunity all gazed
Undecided whether a flat calm were favourable
Or a sea the sun and the wind between them raised
To a likeness of dolphins. Were gulls a sign, that fell
Screeching from the sky or over an unremarkable place
Sat in a silent school? Every face

After its character implored the sea.
All, unaccustomed, wanted epiphany,
Praying the sky would clang and the abused Aegean
Reverberate with cymbal, gong and drum.
We could not imagine more prayer, and had they then
On the waves, on the climax of our longing come

Smiling, snub-nosed, domed like satyrs, oh
We should have laughed and lifted the children up
Stranger to stranger, pointing how with a leap
They left their element, three or four times, centred
On grace, and heavily and warm re-entered,
Looping the keel. We should have felt them go

Further and further into the deep parts. But soon
We were among the great tankers, under their chains
In black water. We had not seen the dolphins
But woke, blinking. Eyes cast down
With no admission of disappointment the company
Dispersed and prepared to land in the city.


Watching For Dolphins is probably David Constantine's most celebrated poem. On the surface it seems to tell a simple, uneventful narrative about looking for dolphins while crossing by boat to Piraeus, the busy port which lies a short distance south of Athens, the Greek capital. (The harbour has a long history - stretching back into classical times.) But, as in most of Constantine's poems, this poem contains resonances, allusions and hidden depths - in this case, literal hidden depths.

All the desires, hopes and dreams of the disparate passengers are focused on one thing: to see the dolphins. Isolated as they are individually, there's a common feeling that, if the dolphins had appeared, they would have bonded together in the shared unity of their experience: ... and had they then / On the waves, on the climax of our longing come / ... We should have laughed and lifted the children up / Stranger to stranger ...

Gradually throughout the poem this personal yet common longing becomes spiritual, religious in its intensity. The fat man stares like a saint; the gulls could be a sign; everyone wants epiphany. It's interesting that Constantine says that children would see dolphins if anyone would, for children are often more naturally receptive to and accepting of the wondrous and the divine, the numinous and the miraculous, than adults.

In the end the epiphany doesn't happen, and the poem ends anti-climactically. The people disembark with eyes cast down. They wake, blinking, as if emerging from a dream, a thwarted vision, another world. Though disappointed, they hide their disappointment, and leave the shared boat as isolated individuals once again.

I know this poem reverberates on many levels, but ultimately I think it's about the difficulty of locating the spiritual and the numinous in today's world, the world of the abused Aegean, which was once a mythical place of purity, a Garden of Eden before the Fall. (Athens is well known for its smog and pollution.) Now both it and the world are corrupted by tourism, materialism, shallow 'surface' experience, polluted with the great tankers, under their chains / In black water ...

David and Helen Constantine edit the magazine Modern Poetry In Translation, which I highly recommend. You can find more details on their website http://www.mptmagazine.com/.

And you can see David Constantine himself reading Watching For Dolphins here.


Ruth said...

This is so touching, Robert. Dolphins are a universal symbol of intelligence and spirituality. I almost feel that we humans could learn from them, aspire to be like them. I wonder how much of this is reality or an aura that has been created around dolphins. But they really do represent a rising above, both literally and figuratively. It's unusual for a poem to end with disappointment, though when it happens it is often memorable. I think of Stevie Smith's "Not Waving but Drowning" -- a more tragic disappointment surely.

It's remarkable, isn't it -- how a craftsman like your Professor Constantine can use just a few words and raise the spirit in these building lines, and leave us with the sad reality that we live in an imperfect world, full of disappointments and failures.

This is an enjoyable series. Thank you.

Ruth said...

I should have added a bit to the end of that one paragraph . . .

Constantine builds our spirits and hopes, then leaves us disappointed, yet there is still a sense of hope that we could in fact see dolphins another day. All hope is not lost. And, there is beauty even in disappointment and loss, as he shows.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your responses, Ruth. I very much appreciate them. I don't think we should be too dispirited by the ending, though. The dolphins are still there, just beneath the surface, remember.

Do read Constantine's short stories. They are incredibly good.

Friko said...

I hope you will continue this series or, at least, publish your thoughts on selected poems. I am learning how to read them in greater depths than I have done before.

I am also particularly interested in poetry in translation and shall check out the link you gave. Thank you very much.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your valued comment, Friko. If anything I write in this blog, in my amateur way, contributes to anyone's greater depth of enquiry and understanding, I am truly pleased - and humbled.

Caroline Gill said...

Yes, Robert, Constantine has a great gift for probing the surface of things in unusual ways. We didn't see any dolphins on our recent trip to the Peloponnese . . . but we THINK we saw a sea turtle, Caretta Caretta (here).

Phoenix C. said...

I love this poem! I'd not read any of Constantine's work before, (hadn't heard of him - I'm very lacking in knowledge about poetry!).

The layers of meaning are so reverberating. It also feels full of hope because the passengers are watching and longing for the dolphins, not just numbly sitting.

Seeing 'dolphins' does surpass every other wish and satisfaction.

George said...

This poem resonated with me at several levels, beginning with memories of leaving Piraeus in the summer of 1972 for a month of traveling by small boats among the islands of the Greek archipelago. I can remember some of the faces on those boats, quiet faces which had little in common, except for one thing: They all seemed to stare silently at the sea. Every passenger seemed to be searching for something. As I read this poem, I have this sense that "every face after its character implored the sea," and "all, unaccustomed, wanted epiphany."

It seems to me that this is always the journey of a quester — searching for an epiphany. Usually disappointed, of course, but always searching.

The Solitary Walker said...

Caroline - thanks for your comment. You have so many blogs I can't catch up! Really like your 'Wild and Wonderful' site.

Phoenix - I like the way you see the positive aspect of hope in this poem. I very much agree with you.

George - what a fabulous month that must have been! We all stare out meditatively at the sea, don't we? In a way it's a blank canvas, and we can project all our hopes, longings and desires onto it.

Whitestone Chapel said...

You will suddenly start getting a lot of hits on this blog as this poem is now on the Cambridge Ordinary Level syllabus :) Thanks for this - I taught the poem today and it's good to have confirmation that I was on the right track!

Warrior Spirit said...

‘Watching for Dolphins’ is not as straightforward as the title denotes. The poem is ambiguous and its tone can be interpreted in a number of radically different ways, from cynically ironic to one of harmless naïve happiness. The ‘serious / Looks’ of the strangers can be contrasted with the ‘smiling’ mischievous ‘satyrs’, and hints at the folly of the lifeless and passive travellers, possibly alienated as part of modern cultures’ industrial diaspora. The only dignity of watching for dolphins so docilely is given to children, who might be forgiven for staring so fixatedly ‘Sat in a silent school’. For the adults, there is a suggestion that the act is one of bad faith and delusion, possibly in order to avoid making any attempt to communicate with one’s fellow species. The stanzas oscillate between factual descriptions in prose-like lines, with stanzas of incredulous religious imagery offering false hope and empty ‘epiphany’. The use of enjambment over lines and stanzas, and the irregular rhymes mirror the lack of any satisfying conclusion to the journey, which ends on a gloomy note with the customers dispersing ‘under their chains / In the black water.’ The poems deep cynicism is masked by the apparent “normalcy” of the routine behaviour.