Who is a poet? A Review of Gatherer of Souls by Lorna Smithers

Who is a poet? Not hard. A poet sees beneath the surface of things, and brings back the stories and songs of the world behind the world.

When I was given the opportunity to review Lorna Smithers’ Gatherer of Souls, I jumped at the chance. I was somewhat familiar with her work through blog posts and references here and there but, you know how it is, time and preoccupations constrain one’s attention in certain directions. So I had never actually read her books or poetry in the ‘sit down’, with the attention that a poet requires. So I was not prepared for just how extraordinary I would find this book.

I’ve read and told the tale of Culhwch and Olwen many times, yet never wept for Goleuddydd. And if that were all, it would be enough. But there was so much more.

This is a book that crystallises years of research, meditation and inspiration into a paean to Gwyn ap Nudd and the deities written out of history or relegated to plot devices to glorify the actions of an invader colonising religion. Brief references contain layers of meaning, the culmination of those years of research, meditation and inspiration, that themselves can become the seeds of flowering inspiration for the reader. It’s not hard to move me emotionally with a book, nor is it hard to move me cognitively, but it’s rare that I find myself moved on both levels simultaneously.

The book spans six ages in six mini-chapters, from the end of the last Ice Age to the present day, telling the story of Gwyn ap Nudd, Lord of Annwn, leader of the Wild Hunt, psychopomp and Gatherer of Souls and his people, and how Arthur, as despot, conqueror, empire builder, systematically and brutally destroyed the old order in order to usurp it with his own. I found the work powerfully iconoclastic… there were many personal resonances within the whole reframe, and even on the grander scale of British paganism there are stories that have taken on such an almost “biblical” and sacred status that to challenge the accepted narrative in the way that Lorna has done takes not just inspired creativity, but courage. There is a consistency to the revealed narrative that Lorna has returned with that cries out with its own truth.

Each chapter contains both poetry and prose (I’m actually not a great fan of much of modern pagan ritual, but one poem in particular, ‘Hunter in the Skies’, was voiced in my head as I read it as a powerful group shamanic chant). We are introduced to the custodians of the tribes relationship with the Hunter, a relationship revealed as both complex, devotional and tender on both sides. We witness the destruction left in the wake of Arthur’s lust of conquest and blood, the human cost, until, at the very end, after we meet the oldest animals reborn/rebirthed for the 21st century, a final confrontation between the forces represented by Arthur and those represented by Gwynn and his disciples.

Again and again the tale of Culhwch and Olwen is a reference point around which much of the unfolding of this book takes place, so if you are unfamiliar with the tale, you may find yourself somewhat unmoored. Similarly, though not so crucial to understanding the broad sweep of the text, is the inclusion of a retelling of the poem the Vita Merlini. It is also a book, I have discovered, that benefits from co-reading with Lorna’s blog.

It’s a deeply personal book, in that it springs from the relationship that is evolving between Lorna and her patron Gwyn ap Nudd, but it is also a deeply relevant book to contemporary British paganism, in the gaps to our backstory it seeks to feel, the reframes to a mythos inherited by an invader religion and the voices, and life, it gives to those subjugated along the way. I’ve read it once. I don’t for a minute think I’ve scratched more than the surface. This is a book I’ll be rereading, along with more of Lorna’s work.

You can find it here https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/publications/gatherer-of-souls/