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.