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Gravity for Beginners by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Arc Publications]

Gravity for Beginners by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Arc Publications]

I have always admired Kevin Crossley-Holland’s writing, particularly his Anglo-Saxon translations, so it is a pleasure to read and review Gravity for Beginners, his first new collection for six years. An additional delight is the setting – mysterious, atmospheric Norfolk with its wealth of legends.

The collection opens with an epigraph from a poem by Rilke which sets the mood for the theme of ‘times past’ and the sense of magic. ‘This is the heart of everything that ever was’ is the first line and it is also the heart of Gravity for Beginners.

The epigraph is followed by nine parts of a sequence called ‘Seahenge: A Journey’ and we begin a journey through an emotional and geographical landscape established by pieces whose titles themselves are poem-like: ‘Tump’, ‘Deadheaded’, Unliving’, Shimmer’. ‘Tree’, ‘Altar’, ‘Crossing’, ‘Tides’, ‘Burden’. Here the journey begins with ‘a search for a thumbnail of pottery’ that will remind the narrator of his belief that he was ‘an inmate of the barrow’ that once existed and whose echoes can still be heard:

         Footfalls in the sandy soil and soggy fen,

         footfalls through forests bedded

         with cones and needles:

         knappers and salt-panners and oyster-men,

         truth-tellers, outcasts, devotees

         still resting here.

The sequence explores the background to Seahenge – a timber circle of oak trunks with a huge, upside-down one at its centre. Here a young woman relates how she helped to build the circle and lay the body of her father inside it and here the atmosphere becomes ancestral, pagan, violent and ritualistic. We are in the realm of a ‘white skull, green earth, swarming sea’. This is the site of a ‘crossing place’ where ‘time and ‘dream’ have re-mapped the original henge ‘into another truth’ where the narrator is able:

         Wholly to immerse myself

         wholly to find myself.

Gravity for Beginners, like all of Kevin Crossley-Holland’s writing, is imbued with myth, history and the still-living past where wide steps are ‘scalloped by centuries of hooves’. (‘The New Familiar’). These lines from ‘The Northern Gods’ particularly appeal to me:

         Have you ever dreamed you were sitting in the bole

         of Yggdrasill, squinting up at the skull

         of the white sky, then down into the icy swirl?

         Have you heard the vitriol of the dragon,

         the corpse-devourer, and seen how the squirrel

         whisks it up to the eagle on the topmost branch?

There’s humour as well as lyricism in ‘L’Abbaye-Château de Camon’ where the ‘rondel/ of the seasons seems to spin faster’ and the breath of the medieval queen Aliénor ‘is always here/or hereabouts, trailing her wailing/retinue of troubadours.’

But this whole collection is a journey and in ‘En Route’ we are reminded there’s ‘always some unscheduled halt/with its attendant wonders’ which may be:

         The marvellous or the monstrous

         but more often the humdrum 

  • a reclamation yard, or the smell

of an autumn bonfire; this siding, say,

choked with dusty purple nettles,

an ochre butterfly flickering over them.’

There is a sense of wonder throughout Gravity for Beginners and this brings me back to the starting point of Rilke’s lines about the way ‘the heart of everything … returns to each of us, our very being,/woven into us.’ Kevin Crossley-Holland invites the reader to share in the essence behind the appearance, to see the landscape behind the words.  The collection’s title poem sums this up:

         Words slipping into the mind’s casket,

         quick rain falling to attending earth.

Or maybe the essence and wonder is best expressed in this, my favourite poem, ‘Winter as it Used To Be’:

         Birds flew in searching for seed

         and all at once became snowflakes;

         as words do.

         A burst of sunlight, an angel’s aureole,

         and then mist; and the trees,

         and our singing selves made of morning air.

Mandy Pannett 31st May 2021

Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire trans. Jan Owen (Arc Publications)

Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire trans. Jan Owen (Arc Publications)

The arrival of a new translation of Baudelaire is always a moment of real interest and this recent publication which appeared last month is no exception. The Australian poet Jan Owen introduces her translations by highlighting what it was that drew her to Baudelaire’s work in the first place:

‘I was drawn to Baudelaire not through any intrinsic resemblance but by his ‘sorcellerie évocatoire’: the distilled power and daring images, the combination of intensity and grace, and the unpredictable mix of formality and intimacy. Those memorable first lines and resonant last lines, that shifting emotional terrain between!’

This is a fine introductory comment and I turned to one of my favourite ‘Spleen’ poems to see how the power and unpredictability came over. The poem, ‘Quand le ciel bas et lourd pèse comme un couvercle’ always seems to be to be a good test of a translator’s sensitivity. It is the poem written about by the great Erich Auerbach in an essay titled ‘The Aesthetic Dignity of the Fleurs du Mal’ where he talks of the temporal clauses describing a rainy day with low, heavy hanging clouds; a sky like a heavy lid closing off the horizon ‘leaving us without prospect in the darkness’.

The opening of Jan Owen’s version is very effective:

‘When the long low sky weighs down like a lid
on the spirit groaning with disgust and doubt,
and in at the far horizon rim is poured
a day that’s sadder than the darkest night;

when earth is changed to a narrow, fetid jail
where Hope, a frantic bat, twitching and reeling,
scrapes her timid wings on every wall
and knocks her head against the rotted ceiling’

I like this much more than the Richard Howard poem I have become used to from 1982:

‘When skies are low and heavy as a lid
over the mind tormented by disgust,
and hidden in the gloom the sun pours down
on us a daylight dingier than the dark;

when earth becomes a trickling dungeon where
Trust like a bat keeps lunging through the air,
beating tentative wings along the walls
and bumping its head against the rotten beams’

The alexandrine metre of the original French makes it clear that this is a solemn poem, to be spoken in grave tones. It includes allegorical figures written with capital letters and the reader is trapped between the lofty tone of the exclamation and the indignity of the emotional imprisonment. Reading Jan Owen’s version I like the drawn out lines with their beat of emphasis, nails in a spiritual coffin, and I like the merging of ‘disgust’ with ‘doubt’. The second two lines of that first stanza provide an interesting image of the day being poured in as if from a jug to a dish whilst the Howard version lacks that visual precision. In the second stanza Jan Owen’s bat (Hope) twitches and reels with a sense of the frantic prisoner trapped inside the cell of a room as opposed to Howard’s more nightmare-like noise of the bat ‘bumping its head’.

In his 2007 notes on ‘Some aspects of poems and translations’ Jeremy Prynne suggested that ‘Teachers of a foreign language often say to their students, if you can read and understand poems written in the foreign language, then you will have insights into the very heart of another culture; but the tasks are often very hard, and also frustrating, because it is mostly not possible to know whether an attempted understanding of a poem has been successful or not.’
He also suggested that translation is a noble art’ making bridges for readers who want to cross the divide between their own culture and those cultures which are situated in other parts of the world.’

Jan Owen’s translation of Baudelaire is a noble attempt and it is already becoming for me the version which I want to recommend to others.

Ian Brinton 10th July 2015

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