David Constantine’s eleventh poetry collection, Belongings, is concerned both with our possessions and with what possesses us. The poems ask: Where do you belong? And have in mind also the hostile: You don’t belong here. Go back where you belong. Behind these explorations another kind of belonging is challenged: our relationship with the planet to which we belong, but which does not belong to us.

 

Ballad of the barge from hell

A thousand miles off India
When nobody but God
Was watching them, ‘Aye! Aye!’, they said
And did as they were bid

And fed ten thousand tons of ash
To the fishes of the sea,
Fine as a dust of pollen
And gentle as mercy

And sailed away to somewhere else
And left a fading stain
That mizzled down among the fish
Soft as a small rain.

And now they’ll drift for ever
For ever and a day
They drift and dream and watch and sleep
And none of them can say

Whether the dream is waking
Or whether the dream’s asleep
They only know it’s bad as hell
And wide and very deep

And they are blue with cold by day
Or white as bone with heat
And shine at nights like stinking fish
And taste in all they eat

An aftertaste of the mercury
And lead and cadmium
They sprinkled on the pretty fish
In God’s aquarium.

 

Ballad of the slave ship in the eye of heaven

Stowage of the British slave ship Brookes under the regulated slave trade act of 1788. Wikimedia Commons

A long way east of Africa
Above the innocent sea
Up nice and high in a hole in the sky
The Lord was taking tea
In blessed company.

Tell me, he said, what’s that I hear,
That screaming sort of din.
Look down will you, and tell me, do –
I’ve lost my specs again –
What is that screaming din?

And one of the company looked down,
A general or an archbish:
It’s the usual, from Liverpool,
Feeding your Worship’s fish
A black and sickly dish

And the din you hear is the natural
Din of a thing like that,
The yes, the no, the to and the fro,
The feeders happy with it,
The food, however, not.

Is it good, the Lord asked a banker
Or a boss, that my captains toss
My black children, your kith and kin,
To my hungry fish? Some loss,
Said the banker or the boss,

Is natural and usual
In the divine economy
If with sugar and spice and all things nice
We’re to bless the home country.
Ah, said the Lord, I see.

Belongings (Bloodaxe Books, £10.99)
These two poems are from the BBC Radio 3 play The Good Ship Esperanza

 

David Constantine was born in 1944 in Salford, Lancashire. He read Modern Languages at Wadham College, Oxford, and lectured in German at Durham from 1969 to 1981 and at Oxford from 1981 to 2000. He is a freelance writer and translator, a Fellow of the Queen’s College, Oxford, and was co-editor of Modern Poetry in Translation from 2004 to 2013. He lives in Oxford and on Scilly. He has published ten books of poetry, five translations and a novel with Bloodaxe. His translations include works by Hölderlin, Brecht, Goethe, Kleist, Michaux and Jaccottet. He has also published six collections of short stories, and won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2013 for his collection Tea at the Midland (Comma Press). His story ‘In Another Country’ was adapted into the Oscar-nominated film 45 Years, starring Tom Courtney and Charlotte Rampling. Belongings is out now in paperback from Bloodaxe.
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