Northwords Now Issue 37

The FREE literary magazine of the North

After the Rain New and Selected Poems 1991-2016 by George Gunn

Kennedy and Boyd 2018

A Review by Anne MacLeod

George Gunn, prolific poet, playwright and journalist, hails from Caithness, where he still lives. In the 1970s and 80s he worked in deep-sea fishing and in the North Sea oil industry. Roughneck, his first play, was performed at the Traverse Theatre in 1984. His work for stage and radio – over 50 productions – is well known. He co-founded Grey Coast Theatre, acting as Artistic Director for the company from 1992 till 2010. He has published seven poetry collections. His book about Caithness, The Province of the Cat, appeared in 2015, and in 2017 a novel, The Great Edge.

Reading George Gunn’s poetry is an adventure in breathlessness. In After the Rain, New and Selected poems, he sweeps us through a quarter century of lyrical observation and intensity sparked by Caithness, its people, the land and the surrounding sea.

The first poem in the collection, On Dwarick Head confronts us with the ‘stinging radiance’ of the strafing North wind and its urgent question ‘are we only what we say and do?’ No. Gunn assures us in Trinity, we are more than that: he, for example, is ‘Gallaibh, Norse & Celt/Caithness shapes my trinity/my grand linking sisters/your power sends me ranting for justice//your people in my voice like a christening’.

And ranting for justice is something this poet is not afraid to do, whether as a ‘mucky-shoed’ youngster with a bow and arrow trained on a decorous cavalcade as The Queen Mother Drives through Dunnet 1968, or the heart-broken oil-worker in Piper berating in disbelief the loss and aftermath of the Pipe Alpha tragedy – ‘the dead are always with us/we remember the dead’ – shock and grief in every line.

Gunn is a poet whose voice chimes with recent Gaelic tradition, with Sorley MacLean and Iain Crichton Smith. The dancing rivers of his verse encompass traditional form, free verse and poetry as song. He navigates with skill the wide and stormy oceans of cultural and political debate. For Gunn, the bedrock is always the land – the land – the land. While his undoubted mastery of music and speech rhythms may perhaps be expected of such an accomplished playwright, his deep knowledge of and engagement in divers cultures and mythologies – classical, Viking, Asian – lend layer upon layer of interest and richness to a political poetry of Scotland in the here and now. At times incantatory, at times almost formal in his lyricism, a salt-tinged realism drives his questing. In the novena-like Rune Stations he declares ‘to lift the flagstone of memory/& count the missing fossils/that is a stone cut rune … …to fish for meaning/in the sea of the air… …to do all of this/& still leave room for wonder/ that is a stone-cut rune’.

He can be whimsical ‘I dream of flying/through the spicy/ itchy air of medieval bird wings’ (The King of the Herring). He can be wistful ‘the family leaves/the hill is empty/except for expectation’ (Seeking Angels). He can be a modern berserker with a sense of humour ‘I would run headless then from steading/to steading… my headless head full of the sweet smells of growth/and silage, ah sweet temptress life’ (Caithness). But even the Vikings in Caithness have softened ‘They slip under the eiderdown of their bodies/the young boys in the bar… … ‘ “Be strong & then be gentle”/I wanted to cry out to them/“like those warriors when your country/was young ’ (In Thurso One Night).

Gunn appreciates the political and ideological complexities of our time. ‘Beneath our feet the littered shells… .. random and unsettled like ideas… …we walked, weaving ourselves into meaning’ and wishes never to become ‘a symptom/of the problem we mean to solve’. (The Solution). He worries about climate change. ‘So it comes, the grey blue sea/is torn to towering ribbons… … Out beyond the headland/a volcano of angry promise/threatens the firth the cliffs the fields/the breath of Loki has blown/& the beach is gone’ (The Breath of Loki). In the same poem he warns ‘all the sacrificial lambs have risen up/the seekers of eternal youth have settled /for the worm-eyed apples of their own/camera-less demise’.

His long poem The Rowan of Life proves a vivid set of songlines for the North where ‘silence can give birth to song/&darkness pass on to light its liberty/all this must rise & fall & sing the dust into life.’ In Bees – a historiosophic ode for Osip Mandelshtam he addresses Persephone who as in Mandelstam’s poem will ‘sift the Sunlit song of the bees/the truthtellers… …so that you can always hear the whispering/of the poor man on the Siberian train.’ Persephone ‘pushes up the dark earth of Time’ and her bees, who traverse the worlds of the living and the dead ‘kiss the wild song of their yellow language/turning honey into sunlight’.

Vernal opens with Walcott’s line ‘The sea is history.’ Gunn declares ‘the absence of light/is not darkness/it is a picture of the invisible/a map of all we know’ while ‘in this vast world/we are pebbles/& yet we shine/when the tide moves us’.

The last three poems Nine Worlds, After the Rain and High Ormlie are a substantial and troubling read. In Nine Worlds, the ghost of the Sutherland poet Rob Donn Mackay makes an appearance, outraged by Atomic City and the bombing of An Garbh Eilean; a poet stumbling from a harbour pub is torn to pieces by wild dogs, and the boor tree has turned into a flowering organ of mad flutes ‘Time the actor concludes his performance on Dunnet Beach/he buries his contract in the sand…… as the Northern sky tears itself apart over Thurso’. In After the Rain (with music) a poem to be read to improvised piano, the agraphon – what is not written – emerges. And in High Ormlie a Committee for Human Improvement insists ‘information is not knowledge… … knowledgeability consists of the capacity/to understand… … no-one in High Ormlie qualifies/instead we listen to how Odetta sings/ or what Woody Guthrie sings and speaks… ’. Meanwhile the old skald ‘slouches/through the overgrown planting paths… … turning birch leaves into pennies/he spends them in the hungry forest of his life’.

Yet Gunn is not without hope. In Two Otters, the Sun sits behind the Summer Isles, shining ‘into the dark places of hesitation… … tomorrow will be different/ but not impossible & we know/that the light will return’. As John Glenday has said, ‘Gunn reminds us that we are a part of this frail, cold, vicious, beautiful world.’ We are all the better for it.