contemplativeinquiry

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Tag: ancestors

BOOK REVIEW: ENCHANTING THE SHADOWLANDS

product_thumbnailIn formal terms, this is a five star review of Enchanting the Shadowlands, a book of numinous poems and short stories by Lorna Smithers. She describes it as “gathered from my local landscape in response to an imperative from a Brythonic god called Gwyn ap Nudd”. If you have any interest in the lingering subtle resonance of the old Celtic and pre-Celtic world in parts of England like the poet’s native northwest, you will appreciate this volume. If you have any interest in ‘awen’ as an inspirational force or creative current, and what it is to be ‘awenydd’, you will appreciate this volume. If you have any interest in poetry and landscape, or what is now called psycho-geography, you are likely to appreciate this volume. I strongly recommend this book.

More deeply, I am hoping in a small way to share something of the magic of the work as I have experienced it. I find that the best way in is to say that, for me, the resonance of the project, its feeling-tone, can be found in the first two verses of ‘A Journeying Song’, one of the later poems in the collection.

1: Horse and Hound

She will carry me

down invisible horse paths.

He will lead us

to invisible lands.

She will carry me

beyond the stolen skyline.

He will lead us

to where horizons end.

2: The Dreaming Land

The dream is not a dream

it is the life force of the land.

A living memory,

it is the dawn. It is the damned.

The dream is not a sleep.

It is a wakefulness

of past people and their dreams.

It is mistakes and shining laughter.

When I read these lines, I can feel myself riding the mare who will “carry me down invisible horse paths”, led (in my mind’s eye) by a large and shaggy hound. I can easily accept that, surrendering to the instinctive wisdom of these animal powers, I might find myself beyond a “broken skyline” at a place where “horizons end”.  I can settle into the felt apprehension of a Dreaming Land where the dream is not a dream, but “the life force of the land, a living memory” and a “wakefulness of past people and their dreams”. The words are a portal to the living reality of the experience itself. In that sense, these two brief verses stand as a microcosm of the whole book.

Peneverdant/Penwortham, the locality described, is a watery place. Its first human inhabitants are called “The Dwellers in the Water Country”, drawn by the obvious attractions of auroch and deer and also by destiny and “the dream of a bard”.

They came with the splash of oars

and the steady splash of feet

drawn by auroch, deer and destiny,

the dream of a bard

who saw the green hill rising

from a wilderness of carr and marsh.

The awenydd poet’s own seership, her own process of inspired and connected reaching back, is caught in her ‘Prayer for Netholme’.

I write this prayer for the White One

Who loaned to me a mare of mist,

Led me across the marsh of time

And granted me the seer’s gift.

For later periods, the poetry is sometimes dialogical with older texts – such as the Domesday Survey of 1086, or James Flockhart’s ‘De Mowbray:A legend of Penwortham’. The latter is referenced in in ‘St. Mary’s Well, Twilight’ – a poem that also includes finely wrought observation of nature and the meaning it makes for the observer/the observer makes for it.

The setting sun is casting his vast aura

With a majesty I never dreamt him capable of

Enflaming clouds in luminescent orange and red,

Purple like mountains behind the trees.

The birds are singing as if it is their last dusk song.

I enlist bold robin, blackbird and little wren …

As if this is the evening of all evenings

And will be their last so better make it their best.

It is hard to write freshly about sunsets, though I do think this is well-managed even in the first four lines, especially through bringing in a delighted shift in the observer’s perception, and then going on to dare purple poetry. But what makes this section of the poem for me is the succeeding lines, which create a foreground for the majestic sunset background through the activity of the birds and their commitment to Being while it lasts.

Throughout the book we are aware of the interweaving of two worlds. This is done particularly well in the stories, which are every bit as inspired as the poetry. I was especially moved by the last, called ‘The Brown-Eared Hound: Rivington, October 31st. 1917’. It concerns sudden, shocking bereavement and also a direct experience of Gwyn’s wild hunt. I could almost see a novel, or at any rate novella, in this story – bringing together the world of Wilfrid Owen, D.H Lawrence and Virginia Wolf with that of living Brythonic myth. At the same time the piece as written did everything it needed to.

I don’t think it is possible to do this volume justice in a single review. It’s hard, with poetry. So I’m suggesting that readers also have a look at Crychydd’s review in https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/04 and the author’s own discussions about her work and its continuing development at: http://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/

Lorna Smithers Enchanting the Shadowlands Lulu, 2015

ANCESTORS

I generally meditate in a Druid circle sitting in the northern quarter, facing south. It is early morning and my eyes are open, ideally with a soft and panoramic gaze. There is a curtained window in the south east, so I am alerted to the coming of the light. At one level, subtle shifts in the quality of light are just passing phenomena. At another level I experience myself in a liminal, numinous space, not entirely of this world, as I slowly re-engage with daily life.

According to the archaeologist Francis Pryor my positioning, and to an extent perhaps its meaning, is deeply traditional. In the long transition from ‘neolithic’ to ‘bronze age’ culture, north was the direction of the dead and the ancestral realm, and materially marked by stone; south was the domain of the living and the everyday world, and materially marked by wood. So I’m working with a spiritual sense of direction which in some ways echoes theirs, without being the same. It would make sense to me if this were true, for I am here on the same part of the earth, with the same relationship to the sun, as my ancestors of this period.

Talking in more detail about Avebury and Stonehenge specifically, Pryor proposes (1) that the great stone complexes, when fully developed in stone, were a place of the ancestors, of the dead. The place of the living, the place of wood, was to their south. Here is how he describes it:

“The second main period of ritual landscape development at Avebury recalls that at contemporary Stonehenge. Again we see the henge suddenly ‘harden’, with the construction of the great outer circle of massive stones, spaced around the inside of the henge ditch and two (actually three) inner circles of stones. This marks Avebury’s change into a new monument. The domain of the living would have been south of the Kennet, and access to the no man’s land between it and the realm of the ancestors would have been via the river and the great complex of great timber circles and enclosures  recently excavated by a team directed by Alasdair Whittle. From this ‘reception’ area funeral parties would move to the West Kennet Avenue. Turning right, to the south, would bring them to the Sanctuary, which had also ‘hardened’ from a timber to a stone circle by this time. … Most parties visiting the ritual landscape in ancient times would have taken the processional route northwards, leaving the vast bulk of Silbury Hill on the left, a silent outpost on the edge of the next world. Eventually they would pass through the enormous portal stones that still guard Avebury’s southern entrance into the West Kennet Avenue. They were then within the circle of the ancestors.

“If travel, or some form of symbolic progression from one state to another, did play a significant part in the way ritual landscapes were experienced, it may also have been important to look backwards and forwards at the same time: backwards towards previous or existing states of being, and ahead towards worlds that were yet to come. Maybe that was why certain key transitional places, such as the Sanctuary or the King’s Barrow ridge at Stonehenge, were so important. To be able to look both ways can be a humbling experience, but it can also sharpen one’s sense of self and appreciation of the here and now. Archaeologists, in their natural enthusiasm to explain the workings of prehistoric minds and the landscapes they inhabited, should be aware that we will never explain all aspects of past spiritual experiences. There will always be lost dimensions of meaning and mystery – which is one of the things that make the subject so addictive.”

I don’t have the knowledge or standing to say whether Francis Pryor is right in his hypothesis, which as he says himself can only be tentative and provisional. I do deeply appreciate him for being willing to risk using his imagination, whilst informing that imagination with the best evidence that he can muster. He looks back to ancestors who in their turn show a high level of imaginative engagement with their own. We can read what he writes in our here and now and thus, within that here and now, are able to anchor a sense of continuity and connection, through our own imaginative openness. The people who built those monuments were essentially like us. They were mortal like us, and they knew it like us. They had a relationship with the earth, sun and stars like us. They had imagination like us. And they had a relationship with death and the unknown like us. Something to do with these characteristics that we share moved them to change their physical landscape. Those are the things that connect us, more importantly than details of custom or belief – rightfully fascinating though they are.

  1. Pryor, Francis Britain BC: life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans HarperCollins e-books (Hardback first published 2003)
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