Review of The Broken Cauldron   Leave a comment

Smithers, Lorna. The Broken Cauldron. Norfolk, UK: Biddles Books, 2016.

Change the names, goes the old Latin tag from Horace, and it’s a story about us.

Smithers, a Lancashire awenydd, poet, blogger at Signposts in the Mist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, has mediated in her latest book a challenging prophetic vision of psychic and environmental shattering in the image of the Cauldron, that ancient and present manifestation of birth, wisdom and regeneration. Spiritual vessel, military-industrial grail, the Cauldron contains both dream and nightmare.

Through prose retellings of Celtic myth and legend, through poems that grapple with this world and that Other that has always deeply haunted us, Smithers links voices, times and places. She revisits the central Druidic myth: Gwion Bach’s transformational encounter with — and theft of — the Three Drops of Inspiration. Holding it up for careful scrutiny, she underscores its immense cost to species and planet. In one retelling she speaks in the voice of Ceridwen’s grotesque son Afagddu, “Utter Darkness”. It is for him that Ceridwen has set the Cauldron brewing in the first place, hoping for his transformation, posting the hapless Gwion to tend it. In a painfully apt contemporary twist, Gwion’s a negligent employee at a chemical plant, daydreaming through a reactor disaster, though acquitted in the subsequent court case.

But Afagddu’s gifted with his own preternatural wisdom, knowing Ceridwen still apologizes for him, even as she dreams of him “suave, clean-shaven, the head of the company in a priceless suit with ironed-in creases” (pg. 74). How we persist in our stubborn lusts and blind dreams.

The five subtitled sections of the book capture something of its span: “The Broken Cauldron and the Flashing Sword”, “Ridiculous”, “Drowned Lands”, “Operation Cauldron” and “Uranium”.

What will we do, we whose minds are “shrunken and empty of gods”? Smithers’ patron deity accuses us all in the person of Arthur, whose profaning raids on the Otherworld have gained humanity a magical treasure, true, but loosed a devastating tide of death. In a triad of admonition to human raiders on Annwn, the Otherworld, Gwyn ap Nudd declares: “Lleog, lay down your sword. Taliesin, cast your mind from praise poems. Arthur, be true to your bear-skin past, hear your bones and the star of the north” (pg. 10).

Listen to our bones, heed the stars: a quest each of us may still accept or decline.

For it is the Otherworld that restrains the increasingly violent rebalancing we have brought on ourselves. And it is there we find “a cauldron that is whole and filled with stars, the infinite reflection of the womb of Old Mother Universe” (pg. 7).

As a solitary, Smithers turns here from a mythos that has long troubled her. She declares her preference for Afagddu, refusing “complicity in the mysteries of Taliesin” whose limitless hunger to despoil and pillage and consume “can only lead to the world’s end” (pg. 8).

It lies in grappling with the double edged-ness of the “flashing swords” of the raiders on Annwn, I would add, that we may at last learn wisdom. Can we learn to gauge and compensate for both gain and cost? Whether we do or no, the Otherworld will assert its balance. A unique book.

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