Seahenge: A Journey by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Andrew Rafferty (Kailpot Press, 2019) is a collaborative arrangement of poems and photographs set in and around Seahenge, the Bronze Age timber circle on the coast, at Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. That such a significant monument was only discovered in 1998 makes it all the more remarkable as an inspirational setting for this collection, in that it has only recently entered the public imagination, but in a very timely manner. Through Seahenge we can visualise the layered histories disappearing one by one under the rising tides; a repetition accelerating with a worrying prescience in the current climate crisis. Its proximity as neighbour to the ancient region of Doggerland, the drowned land now at the bed of the North Sea, means that Seahenge has always been at risk of being washed away. Sea henge: A Journey is a collection of words, shapes and colours that form an ecological snapshot that uncovers a historical and archaeological timeline. The monument may be lost to future generations and this collection may yet become one of the last ways to view Seahenge in what could be the current public's future living memory.
Kevin Crossley-Holland's series of nine poems are interspersed with Andrew Rafferty's rich-hued, abstracted photographs that are almost tactile in the sensory connections they make with the actual locations along the lcknield Way and Peddars Way to the Norfolk coast. The image locations are not all from Seahenge, but they extend the gee-spatial connections and social polities of residents, visitors and their reasons for travelling to and gathering at Seahenge.
In the first poem, 'Tump', Crossley-Holland raises the prospect and immediacy of recollection as he imagines himself 'an inmate of the barrow. // Commentator, diplomat, viola player, priest/ - all four beached on my limitations/ and quickening sense of myself.' Ancient human migrations along the coastlines of Britain are evident as the poem continues: 'That riddled oak lectern, I and the scarabs and the beads from Ur,/ a nacreous perfume bottle lifted / from some settlement south of Alexandria .... ' The accompanying image here takes us to a curated collection of pottery and artefacts that allude to the poet's garden shed 'childhood museum' and the bits and pieces of civilisations that form our own sense of self and interconnectedness.
In 'Deadheaded', there is a sense of one of the conjectured purposes of Seahenge as a site of excarnation, the exposure of the dead to elemental forces as a means of returning the human spirit to nature. There is a witnessed movement of people here, with a shared purpose, but from varied social backgrounds: 'over the Chilterns// then on through the wilderness of this world// Footfalls in the sandy soil and soggy fen, I footfalls through forests bedded with cones and needles: / knappers and salt-panners and oyster-men, I truth-tellers, outcasts, devotees II shouldercompanions on this last ridge/ at the end of their long journey.'
During this movement of people, there is a deep sense of spirituality and animistic beliefs and traditions that we can see in 'Unliving', where invocations to scare death away through 'mommets and hedmedods' (mommets could be scarecrows and hedmedods, snails or hedgehogs, depending on Suffolk or Norfolk dialect). Through the ritual we may be seeing the actions of a midwife or healer 'comforting her daughter/ who will soon be born // You kept saying the unliving / can guard the living.' The ghostly sprites of tall stems or leaves in a delayed exposure image, taken at Whiteleaf, Buckinghamshire, capture those moments between worlds and between locations, pauses and destinations, grounding a sense of actuality in the folklore.
Colours transform from the hues and shades we read as barometers, into spiritual reverie grounded with the urgencies and reminders of the imperatives of nature, as day gives way to night. In 'Shimmer', 'You watched how the ridge/ grew holy// and how the end of the evening / shimmered / the bristling fields/ copper and bronze/ even your own messengers/ the waves of the sky/ no longer mud-foul / but oyster and pearl / while sea-eagles and harriers/ before their bloody work/ made low passes.'
Even in death there is tenderness, hope and celebration as a child is seemingly excarnated on the upturned tree roots at the centre of Sea henge (the position of the log an stone in a stone circle). 'Altar' carries the child across into the spirit world infused in all elements of nature: 'We chipped all the bark from your cradle. / Your white altar. I Your shining altar. II You wore flowers. II Your choker wreathen sea-pink. / So gently we laid you / on the crush of chalk and clay I between the roots I of the upturned tree./ Our death-baby. II I sang you were the setting sun. / I sang until I closed the lids over your eyes/ with this right thumb/ sky has always shone in them.'
The final conjecture of Sea henge's place of passing is alluded to in 'Crossing'. Following on from 'Altar', there is the acknowledgment that 'plans for circles and walkways/ well-guarded by dunes,/ and their heroic labour,/ see also that time and dream/ have mapped and remapped it/ into another truth.' And it is through this unknown truth in 'Tides', that we return to Seahenge's own fate: 'Of what once was I what's left will soon be gone. // Not to search for words words/ but in this place only to be.' Set against a midnight blue backdrop with glimpses of a radiant dawn, the simplicity of realisation of all that has gone is heard in the whistle of grey plovers, then and now, calling this past decline into our own futures.
John Morgan is a visual poet who collects the colours and shapes of landscapes and experiences and transforms them into text images written with features of land, place and the different ways we may see and respond to our movements through life.
©John Morgan and New Welsh Review