is an award-winning poet and translator. He has written 7 collections
of poetry, a novel and a biography. This is his third collection of
short stories, the previous being Back at the Spike (Ryburn) and Under the Dam (Comma).
with David Constantine
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come down off the mountains and the moors – people do, weathered and
made strange by days without human proximities – and stand at the
harbour, at the far end of the water-enclosing horseshoe, and from
there it is exit, putting out, going forth, and access through a silent
herd of islands into an ocean and the intimation of absolutes"
Reviewed by James Murray-White
With his new collection, Constantine has hewn a collection of worlds
from a rock face. Instead of a geologist's chisel, he has used his
insightful poet's eye to pry out the idiosyncrasies, tragedy,
self-absorption and loneliness that encase the people of his worlds.
Throughout reading of this book, I was equally saddened and repulsed by
behaviours and by actions, and yet, as it all was so acutely observed,
I was pulled back into each story again and again to read and hear and
know of these people.
For instance, the title story, Beginning,
contains a body, drowned in Manchester's River Irwell, a mother with
dementia, an awkward, unconsummated flirtation between school-bound
teens on a bus, and a madman, directing buses that are not his to
guide. It is a tense story, yet not for the reasons one might expect.
The narrator recalls many facts from a day 30 years ago, and blends
them in an odd mix of passion and detachment. This duality told through
one narrative voice continues through several of the stories –
different places and people, and extremely different events, but
relayed with this skilful blend of alienation and involvement. Regrets and Living On are examples of this
style in action: Constantine weaving together a dispassionate telling
of passionate events that coruscate peoples lives.
In The Man Who Said He Had Died,
Edward has his life and that of his wife Pauline torn apart through
misunderstandings and what should normally be an incident people can
heal from, and heal from together. Instead, as it is told:
"The absent man and his accident worked on the wife and daughters in
feelings that changed by the minute. Each alone was troubled, but
together they worsened it for one another."
Four stories in this collection particularly stand out for me: The Cave, Witness,
Purgatory, and Petra. As well as exploring issues of human fallibility,
they are linked by their strong use of natural elements: acave, a
deep quarry carved out for coal, now filled with pools, an ancient wood
and ancient ruins, and an island, with a remote lake at its heart. All
these elements act as places of cathartic change for the characters
that visit them, for good or for worse.
It is only the young lovers in
Witness who after discovering a horseshoe pool full of "crystal-clear
water", seem to experience any kind of peace afterward. Reverend Peter
Simple, of the parish Penton Mewsey, in Purgatory, believes he finds
communing peace when he visits a wood containing a "clover bank and a
cressy well", but ultimately it is the devil and a deep black pool he's
This particular story has stunning twists and
sub-plots, which could be separate stories in themselves. Simple's
certainty in his actions, and his willingness to accept what is in
front of him (Simple by name, simple by nature perhaps) see him undone
but crucially unable to fulfil his pastoral vocation. He fails as a
husband, he fails as a vicar, and he fails in his peculiar efforts to
connect with and shelter a wild man who arrives in his parish, whom he
first sees watching him through the "leper's slit" window of his own
church. A grim tale, cunningly told.
In Petra, Constantine paints a
bleak picture of a small island community, turned on its head by a
summer arrival. The line "Poor Foster, I said, cut his throat on the
train coming back from the war, last stop before the port, by all
accounts", stayed with me for weeks after reading it – it epitomises
both the horrors of war, and the potential horrors of human community,
to be found at their starkest here in Gerwick, a small hamlet of two dozen or so
homes. It is, as Constantine sums up succinctly, an "unstable place".
The turmoil that encompasses Gerwick is fermented in
the small "paradise" lake somewhere in the hills of the island. And
yet, despite the human tragedies that unfold, the narrator remains
sanguine in his reflection upon the fortunes of those he lives amongst:
"some sort of solvent ran through Gerwick".
This is really getting to
the marrow of what Constantine is exploring and revealing in these
stories. I discovered his poetry several years ago, and this, with his
translations of the poetry of Goethe and Holderlin, are all part of his
uncovering of flawed humanity through writing. Unlike many other
writers within the classical tradition however, Constantine doesn't
necessarily offer up any redemption, and I admire this. Creating
characters that exhibit this kind of alienating numbness, or, in Peter
Simple's case, absentness, doesn't create an immediate connection to
the character, but the stories are vibrant nonetheless.
The Cave is
about a journey made by characters that are drawn together by something
indefinable, but both operate at arms' length from each other as well
from themselves. Within the cave, Lou and Owen listen to the sounds,
sleep, eat, talk a little and ruminate on their situation:
"The pulse of inhuman life in total darkness continued unperturbed […]
Something more cavernous than he seemed to have any inkling of was
opening up in her, as she feared it would."
Their journey cracks open
the chasm a little more.
The title story is meditative, exploring
simplicity and solitude. The characters find intensity within the
physical space – a gathering place for all these stories of crashing
and crushing emotions perhaps. But part-way through the author reveals
that "their Shieling was an invented place; and an invention, even one
confined to simplicity, austerity, necessity, might be elaborated for
ever by two people who have a vital interest in it". This
physical/emotional place described as "so frugal in its amenities" must
certainly collapse. Its narrator becomes “inconsolable. Still am in
The concluding story, Words to Say It, weighs in at 42 pages, and feels
a little too long. Portraits are created of sensitive individuals, edging toward
each other across a cultural and emotional divide. After a long cold
parallel silence, Constantine shifts his tectonic plates and the two
characters slide toward each other. Some redemption seems possible.
powerful gathering together of fragmented and fragmenting people in one
collection. I highly recommend this masterly collection of stories.
Listen to the author read a story
from this collection on Comma Press