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Three Reviews by Kenny Taylor

A Review by Kenny Taylor

Chronicles of the First Light
George Gunn
Drunk Muse Press (2021) £9.50

The Rush of Lava Flowers
Poems of Survival and Hope
Lydia Popowich
(2021) £6.99 through Amazon

James Sinclair
Bluemull Books (2021) £10

Over many decades, George Gunn’s contribution to the cultural life of northern Scotland and to drama and literature appreciated far beyond has been huge. His working life has included diverse jobs – as a deep-sea fisherman, driller for North Sea oil, journalist, poet and playwright (with more than fifty plays for stage and radio to his name).

“My subject, in the main, is the people, culture, history and landscape of the North of Scotland,” he has said, adding that he sees what he creates as part of world literature. Those connections – to local specifics and wider resonance – are evident in Chronicles of the First Light, his fifth poetry collection, and rendered with the skill you’d expect from such an accomplished writer. Many of the poems are dedications to other people, some deceased. But the sentiments are never maudlin and can frequently raise a smile. That’s the case with Dunnet Ode, for Paddy Bart (1954-2017), which avers: ‘everything is beautiful, Paddy/even the quarter bottle of Bells/I got from the Thurso Co-op/to salute your majestic beard/your easy kindness/your democratic energy.’ and concludes with the glorious line ‘the thick sweet blue salt wine of life’.

I’ll drink to that, and toast another fine collection from the Caithness makar.

The war in Europe gives The Rush of Lava Flowers, the second collection by Lydia Popwich, extra poignancy, though publication came months before the current conflict. Now based in Caithness, Lydia was born in Yorkshire to parents of Ukrainian origin, who came to Britian as refugees in 1947. Her maternal grandfather, who has been an important influence on her life and work, was a writer and political dissident in the former Soviet Union.

Fears of persecution and dispossession seem to prickle in some lines: ‘Tackle it when thrust through the window/Look difficult when leaving the control area,/keeping right. Drive gentle up the road. /There may be more than you.’

In Inheritance, she brings eastern Europe into grimy 1960s Britain: ‘No one knows the people of bone/or why my drunken Dedushka brought them home/from an auction room on Lawkholme Lane,/textile wages blown on beer, cigarettes and porcelain./Their unexpected arrival, smooth and brittle,/put Babushka in a flutter.’

Elsewhere, there’s a dreamlike or stream-of-consciousness aspect to successive lines, as in Zero to Ten, which holds the book’s title phrase: ‘In my eighth year, I survey the crater of an extinct volcano, /see you small and alone down below. Turning circles/you shout my name. I hear the rush of lava flowers.’

There’s a vigour to the language throughout this collection, which George Gunn has described as ‘clear, with a jazzy cello-like music.’ Seek it out online and savour the sounds.

Regular readers of Northwords Now will know that we were privileged two summers ago, in Issue 39, to give first publication to a major poem sequence in Shetland dialect by James Sinclair. Called Back Fae Da Edge, its poems are drawn from the voyage of the ill-starred Hull whaleship ‘Diana’, which was trapped in the Greenland ice in the winter of 1866-67. Many of the crew were Shetlanders, and bodies of the deceased were buried on the islands after the ship returned from the ice to Lerwick.

That poem sequence is now included in Sheeskin and stretches across more than thirty pages, but there’s much breadth and variety of subject and tone in the rest of this substantial collection (114 pages, including a useful and extensive glossary for those not fluent in Shetland speech). Poems range from lyrical, as in Mirrie Dancers; ‘Sae mony shads fae green ta aquamarine/glittrn siller starn, boannie vari-orm/flicker and dance, jig an reel, trowe a winter’s lift’ through the gritty humour of Simmer o Love : ‘An eftir he’d knockit da livin daylichts oot o me/shu guid hame wi him onywye’ to the irony and climate change comment in Better Wadder: ‘An dey moan aboot a young lass staandin apo a/soapbox/tellin wis whaur wir goin wrang./Dey say, get her back ta da skule/fur shu doesna kenn whit shu’s spaekin aboot.’

Robert Alan Jamison reckons there’s no finer writer in the Shetland dialect today. This collection deserves a wide audience.

Northwords Now acknowledges the vital support of Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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