Gatherer of Souls by Lorna Smithers
a review by Kevan Manwaring
This extraordinary collection from self-defining ‘awenydd’ (a spirit worker and inspired poet) Lorna Smithers is the culmination of a full-blooded dedication to the Brythonic god, Gwyn ap Nudd. It charts a contemporary Underworld initiation, a journey to Annwn (the Celtic Hades) and back, with Gwyn as the poet’s psychopompic muse. A figure neglected, or even redacted from the spiritual tradition of the Britannic Isles, Lorna has sought to re-instate Gwyn as ‘warrior-protector of Britain’, a position she feels was usurped by King Arthur. As Lorna herself puts it: ‘After centuries of soul-loss Gwyn re-opened those doors and challenged me to ride with him through war-torn centuries to recover his forgotten mythos.’ Her collection of poetry and prose is a ‘record of [that] journey’. In its six ‘acts’ or ‘books’ Gatherer of Souls charts a mythopoeiac counter-history of Britain, from the end of the Ice Age, through Roman occupation, into the so-called Dark Ages and the fall of the kingdom of Rheged, right up to the present day. In such a vast sweep of time it is inevitably highly selective – a personalised, subjective travelogue, as Lorna journeys with her dark muse. With its alternating poetry and prose (and sometimes prose-poems) the form is like a Celtic variant of the Japanese haibun (a form which reached its zenith in Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, or Travels of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton). And yet in its dense content, a mythic mulch of lore, it is perhaps closer to the long poems of David Jones (e.g. The Sleeping Lord), the psychogeography of Jeremy Hooker, or Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Mercian Hymns’. And yet the uncompromising voice is uniquely Lorna’s own. She doesn’t take prisoners. There is a fierce energy driving these soundings from Annwn as relentless as Ceridwen’s. They are permeated with a quintessentially northern melancholy, a sense of loss, of grief. This permanent penumbra is perhaps overly gloomy at times, but there are flashes of brightness, as in ‘Missing God’: ‘You showed me silver spaceships, three shining gateways…’ Yet even these ‘pathways to the stars … always led back down.’ This is deep dive into the fathomless fastness of Gwyn’s realm and the subconscious of the land, as well as the poet’s own shadow. Arthur, as a legendary figure is reinvented by everyone who comes to him, projecting their own light and darkness – and in Lorna’s case the Pendragon becomes the antagonist, the False King, guilty of terrible war crimes. As the ultimate, flawed authority figure, Lorna sticks it to the Man. This tubthumping revisionism is certainly novel, and it shows the poet’s committed approach. She takes the myths and legends of this land personally, and sees them as continuing. This approach leads to the most original pieces in the collection, the remarkable prose-poem sequence, ‘The Oldest Animals 21st C’, which recasts the sequence from ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ (Y Mabinogi) about the search for Mabon ap Modron, in the Age of Anthropocene. In ‘The Once and Future King has Returned’ Arthur is back as a warmongering demagogue, his ship Prydwen heading a fleet of warhead-laden submarines. And in ‘Time’ the poet shatters the artificial clock of temporality: ‘Timelines snapped like rulers bent too many times’. This simultaneity of the mythic past and the time-torn present permeates her work. For Lorna, much like Ivor Gurney, there is no separation. In its authenticity and whole-hearted commitment Gatherer of Souls offers a refreshing counter-blast to the Postmodern posturing of so many poets with their ironic word-games. For those who like their poetic fix pagan, dark and strong, this is for you.