David Constantine’s sixth collection of poetry addresses those staple poetic themes, death and memory, through the metaphor of the ghost. These are less poems about hauntings and more haunting poems, characterised by loose rhythms and slippery syntax which resist simple reading, demanding instead the reader’s full involvement in the process of sense-making. All poetry, the book suggests, is a kind of ghosting, a deliberate use of language haunted by other meanings and other usages, so that we find disturbingly familiar echoes and returns in the words we read, and catch glimpses of shapes and forms which refuse to reveal themselves fully to vision.
These poems are populated by the dead, the silent, the voiceless and the absent, who are given a kind of voice in the sense that each poem offers itself up as a medium which allows itself to be spoken through. Constantine works with a language of indirection to try to articulate, and give speech to, his own ghosts, and those of modern memory. These are poems of vagueness, of softly luminous outlines, initially indeterminate in their shape and their intentions but always intense in the complex of emotions they eventually evoke. At sudden moments Constantine’s language materialises into something historically direct and shockingly concrete, as in the opening lines of “Shoes in the Charity Shop”:
“It can’t be helped, the way our minds turn
When we see worn shoes in a pile,
It is an evolution of our kind
We shan’t grow out of. But this is charity . . .”
Here the opening cliché conflicts with “charity” and its implicit rhyme of “clarity” in the sudden perception of the historically immense moment behind the highly specific modern image. The poem leaves the parallels between past and present, between image (the photographs of piles of shoes at Auschwitz) and reality (the piles of shoes themselves, and the charity shop window) to work on us as we read on, but its force and its sympathies are firmly established, and remain long after reading the poem.
Elsewhere, one of the prevailing images of the book is that of mist, obscuring vision and heightening the senses in equal measure. The ghosts of the title poem “flit like snowflakes, drift like mist” in contrast to the tangible romantic experience the poem recollects. The same mist reappears in the next poem, “Dear Reader”, where “A white mist filled the deep hospital garden / Even to the lip of her windows”. Two meanings compete with each other in this poem’s title, as the “Dear Reader” is both us and the poem’s protagonist - the poet’s ageing mother, perhaps reading her hours away in hospital where the novels she reads mirror the world around her, both being concerned with “the jostling / Of destinies against their author”.
Constantine is a very self-conscious poet, a worker in words who leaves the traces of his craftsmanship as monument of the labour invested in the finished product. Apart from poetry he has published a novel, a collection of short stories, and a biography of Sir William Hamilton. On top of this he is one of his generation’s most accomplished translators, producing English versions of Goethe, Kleist and Holderlin and work by modern French poets. This range of literary productivity suggests a writer fully aware of the subtleties and complexities of words, but also of the latent powers within language, the abilities words have to make things happen.
The poems in Something for the Ghosts are not quite exorcisms - rather they are invocations and layings-to-rest, where private ghosts are called up, given shape and form, and then allowed free, unchained from their autobiographical moorings. While these aren’t ‘ghost poems’ in the sense that M.R. James writes ‘ghost stories’, the comparison has some mileage - there’s something of James’s scholarly erudition about Constantine’s writing, and of his meticulous sense of the ultimate value of his craft. Constantine often evokes as well a strong, Jamesian sense of place (as in James’s O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad), and of the peculiar intensities of personal memories of place, in many of these poems, and allows, as James does, the constraints of language to come up against the limitlessness of the unaccountable.
The most powerful poems here allow words to run seemingly, temporarily free in the face of the unaccountable, in an attempt to have poetry say the unspeakable. In ‘Aphasia’ this freedom counterpoints the poem’s subject in an irony that is as vicious as it is lamentable:
“The stuck for words, I’ve watched them hit the place
The word should be and find it gone and claw
The air for it and pluck the sheet and close
Their eyes and groan, knowing it’s nowhere near
The tip of the tongue but on a piece of once
And no longer terra firma come adrift
Somewhere arctic going mushy in a fog.”
In its effort to describe, the sentence moves further and further from what it describes, the words evade their intentions, and we slip from detailed description to the “fog” of metaphor and uncertainty, via echoes of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”.
Constantine recognises the conflict between wordlessness and the poet’s wordiness - elsewhere, in “Fulmars”, he writes “All I can ever do is say what things are like / And what they are like is what they remind me of”. The circular relationship between words and things becomes the ultimate theme of Something for the Ghosts, and the ghosts themselves are finally words, language, writing itself:
“By lamplight in the early mornings
I study my hands:
Somewhere between them and the head
And a sheet of ordinary paper
There is an old invention
Ghost wanting blood
Memory wanting precipitation
Thin air a shape
As keen on the heart as an icy lightning.”
Here, the words don’t evade the poet’s grasp, but sit firmly in their allotted places, allowing sense, emotion and expression full play in summoning and summarising the concerns of this impressive book.