Review: The Result Is What You See Today

The Result Is What You See Today: Poems About Running was given to me by fellow poet Terry Quinn. I often see Terry out walking when I’m running and only found out he used to run when he gave me this book. From Terry’s poem ‘to my red tracksuit’ and his bio I discovered he ‘could run for hours down the Grand Union’ and ‘over the dunes at Great Yarmouth’ and completed the 50 mile Highland Cross before being forced to give up by prolapsed discs.

I’ll admit I wasn’t overly surprised to see an anthology of poems about running. I’ve always found poetry and running (along with walking and cycling) to go hand in hand – being firmly in one’s body and immersed in one’s surroundings acts as a counterpoint to hours spent exercising only the parts of the brain that link thought to thought in our imaginal worlds and word to word on the screen.

In their introductions the three editors (all poets and runners) Kim Moore, Paul Deaton, and Ben Wilkinson address the question of ‘why we run’. Answers include that it’s a ‘cure’ for stress, ‘illness, bereavements, break-ups’, a source of meaning, and an act of transformation. Wilkinson concludes: ‘runners run as writers write: because they want to, and because they can.’

When I opened this book and saw it contained 128 poems about running from the ancient days of Pindar through to today I found myself wondering whether I would enjoy reading all the poems because they’re about a topic I’m interested in or whether it would feel like a marathon task.

Due to the skilful ordering of the editors (the book is split into four section based around themes drawn from lines in the poems: ‘what I was born for’, ‘against the rising light’, ‘our bodies gone to our heads’, and ‘I won’t stop until I’ve travelled from one life to another’) and the quality and diversity of the work I found myself sprinting through it with great admiration for the scenes evoked by each poet. At the end feeling fulfilled and looking back on particular poems with wonder.

Within its pages you will find much of what you might expect: ‘chatting, stretching, tightening of laces’, ‘soles slap the pavement, fat wobbles’, ‘breath, push, breath, push, breath, push’, ‘breath, / the kilometre kiss-kiss-kiss of rubber / on asphalt’. References to ‘purple lycra’, ‘the fluorescent top’, ‘calf-socks’, i-pods, ‘vests and gels and spiky massage balls’. The dread of shin splints and a prayer to the knees: ‘Knees, / oh my forty-year old knees, don’t take this away from me’.

‘Someone else’s bum’ by Katie Greenbrown stands out as a humorous prose poem about a predicament all female runners will relate to. ‘I watch and I’m afraid of what they’ll say if I try to run past them dressed this way.’ ‘But going back is twice as far… And I need to get past and go home for a shower.’ ‘It’s awful.’ ‘There were forty-five of them, and one of me. No-one seemed to realise that running clothes are tight for functionality. Not for titillation. Pardon the pun. Or so you get a really decent look at someone else’s bum.’

There’s much of the unexpected and the astonishingly original too. My out-and-out favourite is ‘Running – a bucket list’ by Jon McLeod. In a dazzling display of imagination he lists the runs he would like to do in his lifetime beginning with ‘a gentle jog’ in the ‘Early Cretaceous’ . These include ‘Hill run with Moses, stone tablets providing full body workout’, ‘The battle of Prestopans, 21 September 1745, joining the Higland Charge, downhill sprint session, avoiding musket fire’ and, most memorably for me, ‘The ninth circle of hell, club led by Dante and fellow sinners, difficult footing on icy lake.’

Other poems that stand out are ‘Blake on his morning run sees angels in a tree’, ‘Run, Boorana, Run…’ and the touching ‘Running Together in Greenwich Park’. The latter is addressed to a fellow runner who uses a three-wheeled racing wheelchair and contains the lines:

If you ask me
Is it still running
if our legs don’t move?
I will say yes…

I enjoyed this collection immensely and am very grateful to the publisher, Smith/Doorstop, for giving Terry this free second copy and to Terry for passing it on to me. It is a grand tribute to both running and poetry.

The Result Is What You See Today: Poems About Running can be purchased HERE.

Review: Mapping the Contours by Nimue Brown

mapping the contours by nimue brownThere’s something old about the poems in this book, a bone-deep knowing, a merging of self and land which is reflected in the cover image. It speaks of a time when the hills were the contours of giantesses, the curves of beautiful goddesses, a time that still is and is not with us now.

‘Walking myself into the landscape, and walking the landscape into myself’ is the way bard and druid author Nimue Brown describes the process behind her new poetry collection Mapping the Contours. In the poem that provides the title she says ‘Human bodies are much like landscapes.’

In ‘Raised upon these hills’, one of the most beautiful hymns to a landscape I have ever read, Nimue evokes her lifelong relationship with the Cotswold Edge:

I was raised upon these hills,
My bones are made of limestone,
Sweet Jurassic limestone,
Grown from ancient seas.
I was raised upon these hills
My body made of fossils
Where the Cotswolds meet the Severn,
And the Severn seeks the sea.

She, land, and goddess are inseparable. In ‘Seeking Goddess’ Nimue speaks of going to the forest, rooting with the boar, sleeping with the lynx, making love with the trees, becoming ivy-templed and bird-haired, sharing milk and giving birth to bees. Inseparable too are the local animals and plants: urban foxes, an otter on a bus station, wild swans over the Severn, brambles, orchids, fly agaric. And most strangely a lonely ‘telephone bird’ ‘Outside my window impersonating / A ringing phone.’

There is a lot more uncanniness in this collection encountered in both the seen and unseen worlds. Trolls long to drink ‘the elixir of your terror’ and ‘dead things’ fall from the mouths of the dark siblings of the Shining Ones. In ‘Granny’s house’ ‘All chicken magic and bones’ Baba Yaga

…bears the knife
Opening bone truths
My shoulder blades
My wings
Beauty never dared
Whilst living.

As well as engaging with folklore Nimue provides a more homely and nourishing alternative take on old British myths originating from the Dark Ages of warlords and shining-browed bards. Her cauldron does not brew potions for ‘blinding flashes or ‘burning heads’ but ‘soil food, soul food’, ‘everyday gifts’. Her thirteen treasures are not weapons but a loom, a log, a seed, a cup, a candle…

Tongue-in-cheek she speaks of becoming ‘indigenous English’, a ‘Dirty Briton’, claiming back soil and soul. This act of reclaiming forms the heart of the book. I’d recommend it to all poets, Pagans, and nature lovers as a paradigmatic record of recovering an ancient way of being that lies within our bones and the bones of the land.

You can buy Mapping the Contours HERE and read Nimue’s blog, Druid Life, HERE.

Review: The Book of Onei by Christopher Scott Thompson

The Book of Onei by Christopher Scott Thompson is ‘an antinomian dream grimoire, providing deceptive yet true information about the art of Oneiromancy or dream magic in the form of poetry, fantasy, and intentionally ambiguous instructions.’

It is narrated in the voice of a ‘dark seer’, a ‘night wanderer’ drawn to seek the wisdom of the ‘beautiful chaos’ and ‘primal darkness’ and its ‘chthonic and horrifying entities’ rather than the light. Unlike similar narratives involving journeys to otherworlds he does not go with a benevolent aim such as bringing back a dead lover or relative. Following in the footsteps of his father, who stole The Book of Onei from the Great Library, this Promethean anti-hero goes instead to steal a secret – the knowledge of how to understand the book. “Prometheus didn’t give the fire back,” he tells his wife before setting out through the door in the basement.

The main thread of the narrative is this unnamed dark seer’s journey. The rest is composed of lore from The Book of Onei. This includes stories which take the form of powerful parables in a similar strain to Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathrustra, riddling poems, and lists of the Powers of Onei and how they might be invoked or exorcised through prayers, offerings, charms, symbols, and rituals.

The visionary scope of this book is immense and could only have been channelled from the depths of dream. One of the most striking characters is the prophet Eyes For Flowers, one of the Sons of Crow, who has huge sunflowers spilling through the eye-holes of his crow-mask. This image and the depiction of demons transformed into angels who ‘rose up from the husks of their bodies as burning wheels, as gears and eyes and wings’ put me in mind of the raw genius of Blake and Ted Hughes.

There is also a lot of animistic wonder. I was mesmerised by the song of the spider who sung to the Fool who would become Three-Times Exiled in his cage and by the words of the swaying serpent who teaches that ‘the Chaos Ocean is not a place you can walk to’ but lies ‘in the crevices between moments.’

As you might have guessed this book is packed with paradoxes. The places and powers in the Book of Onei may not exist in Onei itself and it remains unclear whether there is ‘a secret to be uncovered, or only lies within lies.’ The only way to discover the truth is ‘to go there in person.’ Deep contrary wisdom is conveyed about travelling otherworlds, drawn from fairylore, grimoires, alchemy, demonology, and, forthmost from the author’s experiences as a dreamwalker and visionary.

As a kindred spirit drawn to the beauty of the darkness I fell in love with The Book of Onei when it first started out as a series of blog posts and was delighted to hear it has been published in book form. When I read it in full I was not disappointed. It is a valuable contribution to visionary literature and dark mysticism that deserves to be preserved for longevity. Although not explicitly political it is a work that provides gnosis and guidance for facing dark truths in troubled times.

I would recommend it to anyone who has heard the call of the Veiled One who stirs her ‘cauldron made of swirling stars and galaxies’ or been haunted by the ‘eerie, dreadful dead’ of the Host. I don’t want to give away how it ends, only that it begs a follow up – more!!!

The Book of Onei can be purchased HERE.

Review: When We Are Vanished by Nimue Brown

42497_original_9dfb889b-31ef-4c08-803a-a044d1cf1a21_largeNimue Brown is a Druid author based in Stroud. I’ve enjoyed a number of her publications on Paganism and Druidry and her Bardic poetry books. When We Are Vanished is the first of her works of fiction I have got my hands on. It is a speculative mystery novel set in a not-so-distant future where hackers have shut down the global computer network to bring an end to ‘war, finance and government’. When the book opens, the system is in its death throes. Job centres, the police force and scientific laboratories are just about hanging on, relying on new ‘cellulose tech’, which has a mind of its own and a wicked sense of humour. And people are vanishing, suddenly, inexplicably, from the outskirts of civilisation one by one…

At the core of the story is a family: a father who has vanished; three sisters at various stages of vanishing named Kim, Epona and Maria; and their mother, Amanda, who is struggling to deal with it all. The character who I connected with most was the intelligent, erratic Epona. On several occasions her connections with her namesake, the Gallo-Roman horse goddess and psychopomp, are subtly referenced. For example, a computer screen run on the tricksy cellulose tech reads, ‘Eponine Matthews will tell you she is made of chalk’ (referencing the White Horse of Uffington). ‘Tell her to go home and not show her long face again.’ More deeply, Epona is the user of a technical device which allows her to plug into other realities, relating to the horse goddess’s movement between worlds. As I followed the plot, I was intrigued by how this would play out. It did not turn out how I expected!

Nimue has worked extensively with dreams and this shows throughout the book. Its twists and turns and much of the language evoke the non-logic of the dreamworld; metaphorical, absurdly funny, frightening, exquisitely beautiful. As Kim vanishes, ‘Meanings floated away from her. Fish, fish, fish. Sounds like wish… Set the wish fish swimming into the skies. Wish fish, wish fish and if you stare at the clouds for long enough, they would vanish too… She feels threadbare, a word too often repeated. A cloud stared out of the sky.’ Kim’s reflections on time also touch on the mystical. A recurring scene that haunted me was the one pictured on the front cover, ‘yellow dresses and ancestral women made of twigs, turning in a tight circle dance.’

When We Are Vanished succeeds in combining the numinous with an implicit critique of the flaws of our current civilisation: our over-reliance on technology and an inhuman system, our misplaced faith in irritating and badly written self-help books, the impossibility of shutting out wild nature and our wild selves, and the illusion that this world is the only reality. I would recommend it to readers who enjoy a plot rich in references to mythology, folklore and fairytales with surprising twists and to those who are fascinated by the possibilities of future worlds and other realities. As the illusion of liberal democracy slowly melts away from the Western world and alternatives awaken, the situation evoked does not feel far off…

You can purchase When We Are Vanished HERE.

Review: ‘Brigantia: Goddess of the North’ by Sheena McGrath

BrigantiaBrigantia: Goddess of the North is a short e-book (81 pages long) by Sheena McGrath. As far as I am aware it is the first book to focus on Brigantia as an individual northern British goddess; there are many books about Brigit which cover her relationship with Brigantia but none, until now, focusing on Brigantia alone.

Our information about Brigantia is limited to seven Romano-British inscriptions, one (or maybe two) statues and the writings of the Roman historian, Tacitus, who records the tribal name of the Brigantes ‘High Ones’ of whom Brigantia is believed to be the tutelary goddess. I live in Lancashire and have experienced Brigantia’s presence on the West Pennine Moors. I’ve researched her background but never investigated the context of her dedications. This is where Sheena’s work excels and provides an original contribution to scholarship on Brigantia.

One of the most fascinating things Sheena reveals is that several of the inscriptions and the famous statue from Birrens date to around the time the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus lived in Britain (208 – 211CE). His base was at Eboracum (York). The Severans played a central role in shaping the Roman cult of Brigantia.

This is evidenced not only by the dates but by Brigantia’s identification with Caelisti and pairing with Jupiter Dolichenus in one of the inscriptions. Septimus was of African origin. He and his wife brought their deities to Britain. One of them was Tanit, an African goddess who was venerated by the Romans as Dea Caelistis. Another was the Romano-Syrian Jupiter Dolichenus. This inscription results from Brigantia’s assimilation into the Imperial cult. The statue borrows attributes from Caelisti and Juno (Jupiter’s consort) as well as Minerva, Victory and Fortuna. Sheena also examines the political motivations behind the inscriptions pairing Brigantia with Victory.

In the later part of the book, Sheena discusses what can be conjectured about Brigantia’s role as the goddess of the Brigantes tribes. She focuses in particular on Tacitus’ account of the Roman invasion of Britain and the conflict between Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes, and her husband, Venutius. One idea (unfamiliar to me) is that Cartimandua was an exile from south. This explains why she favoured peace with the Romans whereas her husband was hostile toward them. Another consideration is the possibility of a ‘special relationship’ between Cartimandua as Queen of the Brigantes and Brigantia as their sovereign goddess,

Brigantia provides a detailed and enticing examination of the context of Brigantia’s worship in ancient British and Romano-British culture. I’ve been learning about Brigantia for over five years and there were many facts I was unaware of and points I will be researching further. Sheena also provides an extensive bibliography. I would recommend this book as an excellent starting point for all polytheists wanting to learn about Brigantia from a scholarly perspective and to students of Celtic and Roman history and religion.

You can purchase a copy of Brigantia HERE.

*I reviewed this book as a PDF so cannot comment on how it looks or reads on an e-book reader.

Review: A Kindness of Ravens by Rhyd Wildermuth

product_thumbnail.phpRhyd Wildermuth is a writer, anarchist, theorist, bard, and the co-founder of Gods&Radicals. A Kindness of Ravens is his second book. At its core lie Rhyd’s struggles to re-establish the cultus of Brân ‘the Raven King’ and bring an end to capitalism. These quests go hand-in-hand.

The book’s based around a haunting vision of ‘The City At The Gates Of The Dead’ where Rhyd stands beside a dead bard of Brân’s and sees a settlement, a town, a city, built and destroyed then a ‘last city… encompassing the world… And I saw what was coming.’

The cause of this destructive cycle is disenchantment which ‘follows disinheritance, displacement from the land into factories and mills and offices.’ Capitalism cuts us off from the land and creates cities where there is no place for gods, spirits, the dead, poets or the poor.

Rhyd’s work is inspirational because it not only elucidates the problem but offers solutions: ‘a change of place consciousness and a resurrection of class-consciousness, a solidarity between peoples and the spirits of place, a new treaty with the land and its inhabitants (living and dead, seen and unseen)…. we must see every place our home and a site of beautiful resistance.’

One of my favourite pieces, which has been a continuing influence on my thought and work, is ‘Awakening the Land: Madness and the Return of the Welsh Gods’. Narrated from a cliff-face in Snowdonia (which Rhyd climbed to ask advice from giants!) it seamlessly interweaves the stories of Brân with the personal and political.

Rhyd says ‘to know a god you must go mad’ and contrasts the divine madness of the awenyddion with the ‘sanity’ of waging out time for work and waging war. Against ‘the desolation of disenchantment’ he evokes Brân as a revolutionary figure who ‘embodies the land and its power’.

A problem Rhyd draws attention to is ‘trying to world in a god most don’t know’. Elsewhere Rhyd speaks of worlding the gods into existence: a process by which the gods come into the world through us. This can be beautiful and awe-inspiring but also frightening and disruptive.

Unlike members of older religions, contemporary polytheists have few scriptures or predecessors to turn to. It’s even more difficult when communications come from gods only a handful of people have written about from a polytheistic perspective. In the Welsh myths, Brân acts as a bridge for his people. In A Kindness of Ravens, Rhyd acts as a bridge for Brân and the revolutionary potency of his mythos.

Much of this book is intense: written with the raw, uncensored force of the untrammelled Awen. Rhyd’s masterful at taking you into his world to see through his eyes vast seams of injustice, the anger of his gods and the dead, the sorrow of ‘the Singers in the Dark.’

There are plenty of ravens and examples of kindness and care for others too. Rhyd writes ‘As long as we’re happy to enjoy the safety and protection of systems-of-meaning which devalue forests and Black bodies, our gods will be our own personal secret story.’

Rhyd advocates a polytheism wherein the land, gods, ancestors, our communities, the personal and political are intrinsically linked. The fates of all are bound up with the hegemony of capitalism and the imperative to resist it and build a better world.

A Kindness of Ravens is a revolutionary book: an inspiration for artists and activists and a way-marker for polytheists. I return it to my shelf with the firm belief it will be influential for many years to come.

Available through Lulu HERE.

Review: Scotland’s Merlin by Tim Clarkson

Scotland's Merlin by Tim ClarksonTim Clarkson is an independent researcher and historian who gained a PhD in medieval history from the University of Manchester in 2003. He has since written four books on the history of Scotland and the Old North. Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins is his fifth.

This clearly written and well-researched book traces the story of Merlin, a figure best known from television as a wizard and advisor of King Arthur associated with Wales and Cornwall, back to its origins in Dark Age southern Scotland, which was then part of the Old North.

Clarkson begins with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae as the source of Merlin’s depiction as an Arthurian wizard then turns to the Vita Merlini where we find a different ‘Scottish’ Merlin: a ‘Man of the Woods’ possessed ‘by a strange madness’ after a battle who seeks solitude in the Forest of Calidon and predicts his own threefold death.

This depiction originates from Geoffrey’s knowledge of medieval Welsh poems about Myrddin Wyllt, who became wyllt (‘wild’) after fighting in the Battle of Arfderydd and fled to the forest of Celyddon where he found solace beneath an apple tree with a little pig.

One of Clarkson’s more contentious arguments is that this northern wildman was not originally called Myrddin but Llallogan. The earliest roots of his story may be found in Vita Merlini Silvestris, where Lailoken (Llallogan) tells St Kentigern he became mad after a battle then begs for sacrament before his three-fold death.

The name Myrddin arose from the false etymology of ‘Carmarthen ‘Merlin’s Fort’ (Welsh Caerfyrddin, with ‘m’ softening to ‘f’)’. There is no ‘need to imagine that Lailoken of the North was already known as ‘Myrddin’ before his story migrated to Wales’.

More contentiously, Clarkson claims that Myrddin was not pagan but Christian. This is partially based on textual evidence. Lailoken pronounces ‘I am a Christian’ and petitions Kentigern for the sacrament. In the medieval Welsh poems, Myrddin addresses Jesus and his sister, Gwenddydd, urges him to take communion before he dies.

Clarkson also contests Skene and Tolstoy’s views that Gwenddolau, the northern British ruler who Myrddin fought for at Arfderydd was a pagan. The 5thC archaeological evidence shows ‘the aristocratic landholding elite proudly displayed their Christian credentials on memorial stones’.

‘the organisational infrastructures of paganism were unlikely to have survived the onslaught of the new religion. The two institutions could not exist side-by-side. Wherever Christianity came, the old beliefs died out within a couple of generations. Christian missionaries in the Celtic lands were not, as it is sometimes imagined, willing to turn a blind eye to pagan worship. They were determined to eradicate it. In such a climate of non-tolerance it is very unlikely that druidism, in whatever form, was able to survive… we should envisage Gwenddolau as a Christian king.’

Although Clarkson claims Merlin was not a pagan he admits it is possible to see him as a Celtic seer, shaman, or awenydd, in the Christian tradition. Rather than asserting his view as correct he encourages readers to make up their own mind whether ‘the original story was sprinkled with Christian allusions by later writers and all references to paganism were expunged’ or ‘there was no pagan narrative from the outset.’

Before I read this book it was my personal opinion that the medieval poems about the pagan wildman Myrddin Wyllt formed the earliest strata of the Merlin legend, and that the vitae of St Kentigern and Vita Merlini Silvestris contained later Christianised variants as propaganda promoting Kentigern and the Christian church. I haven’t been persuaded otherwise. It remains my opinion that Gwenddolau was one of the last pagan rulers of the Old North and that Myrddin was pagan; the allusions to Jesus and communion were added by Christian scribes.

Minor personal disagreements aside, this is an excellent book which does valuable work in tracing the origins of the Arthurian wizard, Merlin, to their roots in the story of a northern British warrior who became ‘wyllt’ at the Battle of Arfderydd, found solace amongst the wild creatures of the forest and became a renowned prophet.

I’d recommend this book to everybody interested in Merlin, British mythology, and the history of southern Scotland and the Old North. As somebody based in Lancashire it’s encouraging and inspiring to see the forgotten Dark Age histories of the north returning to life and being reclaimed.

You can find out more about Scotland’s Merlin and how to buy a copy on Tim Clarkson’s blog HERE.