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