Sometimes in the business of reviewing you come across a collection that is so impressive in its quality and so layered and complex in meaning that it challenges one to find words to do it justice. The Keeper of Aeons (Broken Spine Arts, 2022) by Matthew M.C. Smith is one of those collections. This is a beautifully structured combination of prose and poetry that takes us through the rugged rural landscape of Wales, back through history to the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods and forwards through time and space to an apocalyptic future when humankind has destroyed Earth’s environment. The writing is at times reverential, as he reflects upon the lives of our distant ancestors, and at times it is deeply disquieting as he imagines the future we are heading towards. Above all, however, it is informed by a sense of awe and wonder at the magnificence of the universe which we inhabit and by his desire to find meaning within it.
It is no exaggeration to say that Smith’s descriptions of the Welsh landscape rival those of R.S. Thomas. In both their writing the landscape is not merely described, it is experienced. In Sweyne’s Howes, Smith writes: ‘My feet grip moss-frayed rocks as my walk edges lurid clusters of purple heather, the stinging brush of yellow gorse on knees and calf muscles. A lizard flickers, skittering, Sun-basked stillness. I climb a cascade of barely submerged, stones, scattered footholds up steep uneven routes, stop and turn. The ocean’s gleam of gold tide-lapped, serpentine headlands.’ The syntax gives the description a breathlessness, the breathlessness of a man climbing a steep incline, but also of a man whose breath is taken away by the magnificence of the place, captured so eloquently in the culminating image of the ‘gold tide-lapped, serpentine headlands’ and in the finely observed sensory details: ‘the lurid clusters of purple heather’, the ‘stinging brush’, the lizard ‘skittering’.
For Smith, however, the landscape is not merely a source of delight, a source of ‘serenity and majesty’ (Mynydd Drummau), it is the custodian of the past, a keep of aeons, perhaps. In Mynydd Drummau, he describes a school trip to Carreg Bica, a standing stone of the Beaker people. The effect of the visit is to trigger in the young Smith a vivid picture of ‘the bronze age people in skins, sackcloth and rags, holding upon torches of flame dragging this enormous jagged, 4.3 metre sandstone, heaving it with rope and levering it into the ground’ Even now he thinks of ‘those inspired pagans…dragging their sacred rock, dancing round it, shadows cast by sunlight or flame.’ The landscape holds and preserves the record of our past. Yet that record is shown to be under threat. In Ogof Coygan Smith refers to relics salvaged from the cave as a ‘hoard’ and ‘a shrine of bone and stone’. There is a reverence here and a veneration of our ancestors, underpinned by a belief that such places should be preserved because of their importance. Yet Smith shows them to be under threat, destroyed by progress. ‘Neanderthal place, hyena den, mouth of bones. Open-cast quarry./ Earth blast, seismic sound, sonic boom./ Diggers excoriate ruins in dust-fog. Too late.’ Progress and the preservation of the past are incompatible. Such places are fragile, yet important, ‘glass’, ‘a mirror’. They allow us through the imagination to understand our history and who we are. They should be revered.
The landscape holds the secrets of the past then. More than that, there is a suggestion in a number of poems that it may indeed be the keeper of the secrets of creation: a route to understanding not only our own history but also the meaning and purpose of creation itself. In Fault Wounds Smith refers to the ‘braille of rock’ and in Bryn Celli Ddu to ‘ciphered rows of rocks’. It appears as if the landscape could communicate its secrets to us, if only we possessed the language. This idea of revelation is taken up by a number of poems in the collection. Take for example, In a Tomb, Wishes Rising. Smith describes Christian religious rituals such as mouthing ‘prayers for loved ones lost’, lighting ‘candles…in solemn naves’, the lifting of ones eyes towards heaven’ , all accompanied by the refrain ‘wishes rising’. There is a need expressed here to experience a connection with the divine; the same desire that informed the pre-Christian burial practices described in Paviland: Ice and Fire and articulated in the poem Revelations. Significantly the latter poem is written in the first person plural. The poet aligns himself with those who seek spiritual truth. He describes the experience of being in St Mary’s looking, perhaps, at an altar piece or a stained glass window picturing ‘the gilt and gold of martyrs,/ a still life procession/ of bowed apostles.’ The effect is to prompt ‘dreams, reveries,/ temporal, soar,/ in spire- flights of soul/ to the lone steeple-point/ on which a city turns.// pointing to truths, unknown,/ to a biting sky.’ The congregation and visitors, however, are denied what they seek: the truth remain ‘unknown’, the need unsatisfied. It is no coincidence that the collection finishes with a poem that ruminates on the question What is faith?
In short this is an ambitious collection fired by a powerful intellect and a command of poetic technique that leaves this reader envious and in awe. Matthew M.C Smith has already established a reputation as a highly accomplished poet, admired by many (if the numbers visiting my website to view his drop-in are anything to go by!) He is a writer who has the talent to rival the Welsh greats! Read and enjoy!
Matthew M. C. Smith is a Welsh writer, based in Swansea. He published The Keeper of Aeons with Broken Spine Arts in 2022, following his first collection, Origin: 21 Poems (2018). Matthew’s work is published widely, such as in Poetry Wales, Arachne Press, Acropolis Journal, Barren Magazine, The Lonely Crowd and Icefloe Press. He is the editor of Black Bough Poetry, TopTweetTuesday and the Silver Branch project. Matthew is campaigning for the return of the ‘Red Lady’ of Paviland – the skeleton and its funerary adornments – back to Swansea after 200 years of being in Oxford, believing this to be an iconic cultural asset for South Wales. He has published a campaign pamphlet Paviland: Ice and Fire, available on Amazon with all proceeds to his local foodbank.
25th March sees the launch of my latest pamphlet, Benchwarmers,(Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2023). This pamphlet was joint winner of Hedgehog Poetry Press’ the ‘Wee Collection Challenge’ in 2022. Here’s a fellow poet’s view of it.
“Kent’s poems in this collection, skilfully sketch out the lives of the dispossessed; those who ‘…lost life’s toss the moment they were born.’ His poetry vividly captures the feelings of loss and exclusion experienced by the disenfranchised child, and offers us a sobering insight into how our society fails many young people for so many reasons. In his prose poem, Cut, Nigel Kent sets the sharpest rebuke: portraying the brutalizing effects of ostracism in the psyche of young minds, ‘I’ve left my mark carved my initials in entitlement’s bark with the blade they made.’ A chilling yet haunting pamphlet of poems.
Josephine Lay, author of ‘A Quietus’
Cost £8.99 + £3.00 p&p.
To pre-order contact me via the Contact Page or email me at ‘email@example.com’.
2 thoughts on “Review of ‘The Keeper of Aeons’ by Matthew M.C. Smith”
Reblogged this on The Wombwell Rainbow.
Fantastic review, Nigel. Well done, Matthew.