BOOK REVIEW: THE BROKEN CAULDRON
Highly recommended. Author Lorna Smithers describes The Broken Cauldron as “a fragmentary collection of essays, stories and poems”. Yet I experienced this book as a unity, a poet’s meditation even when presenting technical information about fracking and nuclear power. For it is built around a compelling core image, made visible in Tom Brown’s striking cover illustration.
At its fullest and most majestic, that image is “a cauldron full of stars”, the womb of Ceridwen, Old Mother Universe, and traditionally the source of inspiration, wisdom and rebirth. Yet here the cauldron lies shattered, the universe is fragmented, and the world is out of kilter. Smithers takes myth out of archetypal romance and into the wounded world of history, making it awkward, jarring – and dynamic. She confronts us with where we are and transmits a warning wake-up call from gods and storytellers.
In her introduction, Smithers explains how she was led into a quest to understand the significance of the broken cauldron in ancient British history. The myths she studied were penned in medieval Wales but are rooted in an older oral tradition. All tell the story of the cauldron. When it is broken or stolen, cataclysmic consequences are unleashed. Smithers was particularly drawn “to the violence of Arthur’s raid on Annwn (the Otherworld) and assault on its inhabitants. The moment Lleog thrusts his flashing sword into the cauldron came to symbolize the patriarchal world view … founded on oppression of the Other”. In her poem about this she writes:
“The sinking blade lit like lightening.
Reflected in it faces of a million million souls,
Eyes melting, disintegrating like shadows
Into pure white light.”
Lleminog, another of Arthur’s companions, carries the broken prize away:
“Lleminog scooped the cracked cauldron
Into his hand,
Escaped like a thief into the night
With moon, stars, sun, broken pieces
Of Old Mother Universe jangling in his pocket.”
Smithers works under the aegis of Gwyn ap Nudd, a god “who haunts the peripheries of the Bardic tradition”. His world is Annwn – an Otherworld described as ‘not-world’ and ‘the deep’. There he keeps a cauldron that is whole and filled with stars, “the infinite reflection of the womb of Old Mother Universe, Ceridwen”. Much of our inherited Bardic tradition is seen as problematic. In particular, “Taliesin epitomizes all that is questionable and dislikeable” about it. The poet of The Broken Cauldron.is an outsider “watching with horror as Gwion escapes with the Awen and Gwyddno’s horses perish in the poison” – paying the terrible price for three drops of inspiration. The Gwion who becomes Taliesin pays little attention to this and becomes a sycophantic court Bard as kingdoms fall.
Gwyn offers the possibility of fixing the broken cauldron by gathering the poison back into it from the land, and Lorna Smithers supports this work by telling the stories of “marginalized figures – the overshadowed, the oppressed and the slaughtered”. The Broken Cauldron is divided into five sections: The Broken Cauldron and The Flashing Sword, Ridiculous, Drowned Lands, Operation Cauldron and Uranium. The urgency of myth trying to reconstruct itself for are times is conveyed in a number of ways. One is the striking language of set piece poems, as in Dumb Man:
You come mouthing words.
There are burnt out cities in your mouth.
The vocabulary of sign language
Cannot convey the stories
You need to tell.
There are the cumulative effects of the giant Diwrnach’s repeated death in slightly variant stories from different regions of Celtic Britain, as he defends a cauldron in a feasting hall and is slain by his own sword. Smithers describes this back-to-backing of versions as a ‘montage’. There is dark whimsical fantasy in The Day I Raised the Dead, which takes place in The Court of the Sons of the King of Suffering – a “joyless place”. There is a realistic account of a journey to find out about, and find, the drowned Porth Wyddno, once one of “the three chief ports of the island”, which Smithers places in Lancashire rather than at Borth in west Wales. There is a discussion of uranium and the nuclear power station at Sellafield aka Windscale aka Calder Hall, and its inclusion in the myth of the “cauldron which is filled with stars” and dangerously toxic when messed with.
Most poignant, for me, is the story of Morfran, which straddles time. His mother, “a scientific genius with a meticulous eye for detail” runs an award winning chemical plant. Growing up gawky and ugly as a cormorant, he has been nick-named Afagddhu (utter darkness) by a mother who is determined to fix him and make him presentable. Events occur, though not to him. At the end of his story, he muses “perhaps that’s where I’ll go, down into the deep where there is no ugliness and no perfection, surface with a fish for a clean breath or air before her child is born and the cycle begins again.”
There is much more. The Broken Cauldron is a wonderful example of the re-visioning of myth, fully immersed in the old traditions, yet bringing out new meanings and new possibilities for our time.
Lorna Smithers The Broken Cauldron King’s Lynn, Norfolk: Biddle’s Books, 2016 Cover art by Tom Brown.