Gatherer of Souls by Lorna Smithers, a Review

 

These are poems and stories that probe, lifting tissues of (mis)remembered pasts. Ghastly misdeeds of King Arthur and his ‘knights’ are here. Smithers gives voice to those that were decapitated & slaughtered, mutilated like the Very Black Witch of Orddu, the giants of the land whose beards were pulled out bloody and nasty. Gatherer of Souls on one hand is a work of disassembly, but through such it is prophetically freeing of those who were buried, covered up, cast out as monsters from a developing, eventually imperial narrative.

 

Essentially, this book is a retrieval of Annwn, the Brythonic underworld, and of Gwyn ap Nudd to whom it is dedicated, a psychopomp and leader of the wild host who has gathered multitudes over the millennia, and is associated with Glastonbury Tor among other places. She shares her experience in a way that is accessible to the reader and also intensely poetic. “I met him on the tear-drenched edgelands between madness and reason, dreaming and waking, life and death. Gwynn ap Nudd opened the doors of Annwyn and called me to ride with him into the mists through the war-torn centuries to recover his forgotten mythos.” The book continues the courageous charting of Annwyn in her previous and recommended book The Broken Cauldron.

 

“Across Prydain giants lay headless and beardless, stony limb scattered in fragments on their hilltops. I helped them pull themselves together, fixed their broken fingers, stuck on their peeled-odd fingernails, guided their sprits into Annwyn’s craggy beds and chairs.

Their anger gathered into a muttering beneath the land that sounded like grinding rocks as Arthur and his men set forth to capture my hounds with leashes woven from their blood beards.”

 

The book is a mix of poetry and prose, but all filled with the prophetic vision of the anywyddyn. That the dead will rise again is foretold. That Gwyn has strengthened. She turns Procopius, the early Byzantine historian (who described a terrible wilderness of serpents and wolves north of the Roman walls) on his head: “From North of the Wall I return/cloaked in feather and claw./To breach the gap/and bring down the divide”.

 

Many voices speak through Lorna: a young girl living in a Celtic village who comes to know a Chalk God whom she first hates for taking her sister; there is Snow who lives at the time of the reinhabitation of Britain after the Ice Age, and who lives on plains of blizzard in the comfort of a “little tent made from willow saplings and reindeer-skins.” She tells us that it was like living in a “reindeer’s womb.” Wind Singer lives at the time of the Roman conquest and gives birth to dragons. In time of despair she flies as a dragon with the Winter Lord. Then there’s the raven that tells us of the downfall of the House of Rheged, that once-fierce kingdom in the north, of Urien blinded by the bible-bearers who forgot what his shield was all about. The oldest creatures share their stories here in a new way: the blackbirdsmith whose “black feathered cloak was sewn by the tailor who dressed the earth”, the wood stag, “when he sprouts back to life, no prison of brick can contain him; the wingless owl; the eagle who ate the stars, she who was taken to the depths by a salmon whom she healed from the wounds of the tridents; and that salmon of wisdom who now has to wear armor: “His wisdom has become a submarine to sink beneath visions of witches, eyes on the radar, launch missiles at Mabon’s prison…” and so many more…

 

As a child, I grew up with the King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table like so many Americans of my generation, went on to the shimmering artifice of Malory and later saw Arthur (whose name has a bear root) as a Celtic hero fighting off the Saxon invaders. At times this is a discomforting vision, almost a #metoo of the ‘once and future king’ on one level. The reveals of the voices of those abused feels so timely, the voices of Annwyn and the giants, witches and the rest of the ‘othered’. Smithers work is one of deconstruction but most importantly offering new vision and insight, the work of a true poet. I will be rereading this one. It could well be read alongside “Chulwych and Olwen” from the Mabinogi.

 

It can be obtained here:

https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/publications/gatherer-of-souls/