Review of Enchanting the Shadowlands by Lorna Smithers
This is a substantial collection of poems and prose by Lorna Smithers written in response to an imperative from Gwyn ap Nudd who gave her the task of ‘enchanting the shadowlands’, of bringing back enchantment to the land through her writings. As a task carried out for the god she follows it is an exemplary illustration of one way of following the path of the awenydd and , indeed, of showing dedication to the gods.
The Prelude sets the scene for the collection with a reference to the ‘Bull of Conflict’, the words addressing Gwyn ap Nudd at the beginning of the dialogue between him and Gwyddno Garanhir contained in an early Welsh poem in the manuscript of The Black Book of Carmarthen. Following this the collection is divided into a number of sections, each of which are aspects of a journey in the sense that they chronicle a development through time both in the imaginative life of the poet and in the landscape she celebrates while at the same time culminating in a union with Gwyn.
The first section recalls the early history of what is called ‘the ‘water country’ before the land was drained and when people lived close to the wetlands. There is then a section for Nodens, Gwyn’s father in the mythological record. Sections follow which look at the growth of community around Castle Hill, the life of the meadows, the re-imagining of the town of Preston in its original designation of Priest Town, the river Ribble and its Goddess Belisama and, finally, sections focussing on Gwyn himself and his Hall. There is a rhythmic movement between these sections, each changing the perspective but also keeping a clear focus on different aspects of the project of imaginative recall.
As the reader moves through each section the landscape is explored, relationship affirmed and the purpose of the developing narrative kept firmly in the author’s gaze:
I write this prayer for the souls
of the long forgotten dead
who greet us in the fields,
wandering roads and haunted farmsteads.
This is an assured voice, balancing the free expression of her message with a control of the rhythmic development of the verse so that the emphasised words also carry subtle echoes of each other, so ‘souls … fields’ assonate together and interrelate with the harder ‘d’ sounds of ‘roads’, ‘fields’ and ‘farmsteads’.
The “stories must be told”, as a verse in the same poem has it, and the task of discovering a place to live that is ‘enchanted’ is fulfilled by this telling so that gramarye may once again be infused with our experience of living in the landscape. This is not simply an antiquarian exercise in recovery but clearly, as well as being divinely inspired, also undertaken out of love for the landscape itself.
There is, of course, a particular focus on her own locality of Penwortham, or Peneverdant as it is called in he sources back to the Domesday Survey of 1086 that have been researched as part of the project. Understanding history and the felt particularities of the lives of the people who have lived on the land is a strong feature of the poems, and with more detail and a little more definitively in the prose pieces which intersperse them. These also relate some of the legends and myths of the area as in the moving story and subsequent poem about the drying up of a local well. In this way the recognised history of the area known as Castle Hill is brought to life with imaginative insights into events and the people who experienced them. The spirit life, which is inseparable from the physical life for those who would really know it, and the perception of Gwyn ap Nudd, the King of Annwn as he is described in another early Welsh text, infuses the stories told and shapes the collection.
‘The Meadows’ section evokes the life of the fields and ends with a powerfully resonant poem with the refrain “ …Horse of my dreams …” and the charged final line “And we plunge into darkness to the kingdom of our bond” which as well as re-iterating the pact also begins to anticipate the concluding sections. We get there via ‘Priest Town’ and the songs to Belisama and the Ribble. The Gwyn ap Nudd section returns to the early Welsh sources of his mythology, from Culhwch and Olwen and the legends of the Wild Hunt. And so to his Hall in the final section. This might be regarded as the hall of the dead but this is no place of gloomy sojourn. Though it is “Summer here and winter there” and the celebrated life of the earlier poems is a “brief home”, the arrival there is a consummation :
When my task is complete
will you take me, make me whole?
This is addressed to the Hounds of Annwn at the end of the previous section. Once in the Hall
When you are truly swallowed
the universe will spit you out saying
break every boundary.
We are part, that is, of an enduring eternity. Nothing is set in stone. There is “no theodicy” as another poem has it, but there are “truth and promises” binding us to “the boundless infinite”. By such apparent paradoxes truth is found, promises made and the imperative of the god fulfilled.
The Coda poem that completes the collection is addressed to the Ancestors who are “… presence … stories on our lips.” In this collection those stories are told and the Ancestors are made present. It is a remarkable testament to a promise made as well as being a skilfully wrought work by a committed awenydd.