David Constantine

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How does Constantine make the ordinary extraordinary in "Watching for Dolphins"?

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David Constantine begins the poem with the speaker’s observation that an event occurs repeatedly, “on every crossing to Pireaus.” The speaker then mentions the common actions of numerous people, as “certain passengers ... rose” from their seats and went forward in the boat, but did not acknowledge that they had any “common purpose.” Numerous individuals are then distinguished by their appearance and the accessories they carry, as well as their distinctive approaches to the same activity, that of looking for dolphins in the water around the boat.

Among the attributes that the speaker imparts to various people are that some are “lovers,” and likens their attitude toward the dolphins to their “desire” for each other. The poet uses figurative language, including similes and metaphors, in describing people’s demeanor. For example, one “fat man ... stared like a saint.” In addition, the man’s glasses are personified as “sad bi-focals.”

The author uses alliteration to emphasize the importance of the sea, employing numerous words that begin with the S sound, such as in these lines:

Screeching from the sky or over an unremarkable place

Sat in a silent school? ...

Smiling, snub nosed, domed like satyrs ...

Furthermore, even as they call attention to the “unremarkable place,” the speaker suggests that the possibility of the dolphins’ presence actually makes it remarkable. They continue by suggesting that the passengers’ quest has spiritual qualities. The searchers want “epiphany,” and their actions are described twice as prayer:

Praying the sky would clang and the abused Aegean

Reverberate with cymbal, gong and drum.

We could not imagine more prayer ...

In referring to these loud sounds, the speaker also personifies the sky and the sea, and implies a connection with ancient rituals or mythical beings such as the “satyrs.”

The end of the poem brings the setting and tone back to the ordinary and terrestrial, acknowledging but not dwelling on the passengers’ disappointment as their trip ends without seeing the dolphins.

Eyes cast down

With no admission of disappointment the company

Dispersed and prepared to land in the city.

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