2007 - 2021

Review of George Gunn’s new collection of poetry the ‘Chronicles of the First Light’, published by Drunk Muse Press

George Gunn Caithness Makar, playwright, novelist, chronicler of and from ‘The Province of the Cat’, essayist. and Bella Caledonia columnist, is well-kent to many.  This new collection of poems ‘Chronicles of the First Light’ is the fifth collection of his poetry to have been published, and the first published with Drunk Muse Press, one of Scotland’s newest publishing ventures.  There are poems in this collection that express themes close to the lives of people throughout Scotland, and the world: pandemic, populism, and the plight of communities positioned as peripheral and precarious.  There are love poems: romantic poems, and elegies filled with the poet’s care for our capacity to continue, to sustain in finding truth, to grieve for what has gone, and to assemble futures founded in hope.  Gunn’s poetry sweeps through time, offering intimate portraits of present-day Thurso, Gunn’s own ‘Atomic City’, the enduring beauty of Caithness, and millennia of the county’s history and lore.

Gunn never lets his technical brilliance cloud the clarity of his words.  The poems are clear-cut from the Caithness coast, where he writes ‘the Sea is offered up & put into the Earth’.  They are set adrift among us with all the power of the cross-tides in the Pentland Firth, and with the tenderness of the first leaves of a Caithness spring, when the voar releases their ‘fingers to print the air’.

This outstanding new collection is available to order from Drunk Muse Press at https://www.drunkmusepress.com/shop

When I mentioned that I had been asked to review ‘Chronicles of the First Light’, a friend suggested that given George Gunn’s renown and popularity, the books would be flitting from the publisher’s shelves regardless of the words that I might spend on them.  This will be true.  And so, the remainder of this review is written to affirm that when you buy this collection, and read it, and buy it again to share with others, you are giving due to one of Scotland’s finest poets.  It is also for all of us when we think that poetry is not for us, that it has little to offer for our floundering in this queasy world, to address the seemingly unending regimes of dominant power, and profit-driven ecocide.  In the following paragraphs, exploring elements of the poems, we can see that they recover and use ‘the language of life’.  This is poetry made for seeing and repairing our world.  It is for us all.

‘Chronicles of the first Light’ contains thirty-six poems assembled as a trilogy: ‘Eclogues’, ‘Ormlie Elegies’, and the eponymous ‘Chronicles of the First Light’.  The collection opens with ten poems, which Gunn has named, we imagine, with an eye to his poetic forbear, Virgil, who wrote his own Eclogues at a time of catastrophic unrest during the political and social disintegration of the fabric of the Roman Republic.  Virgil’s poems have been cast as simple, escapist fantasies, a run to the rural away from the chaos of urban collapse.  Yet Virgil’s verses, filled with beauty and humour and people, also tell of emotional turbulence, and reach out to readers anxious about their own capacity to cope.  Here is the connection to the intention of Gunn’s ‘Eclogues’.  Resounding with the lyricism of ancient pastoral (and bardic and skald’s) poetry, the language of the poems remains accessible and flexible, navigating ancient and contemporary events, eliciting poetry from everyday life and pasts, to illuminate cycles of human experience.

In ‘Beltane Hailstones’, at the opening of the collection, the poet brings us to his garden.  Here, in the fluid boundary between home and nature, Gunn recalls the torrid, time-unbounded beauty of a local mountain (its name reclaimed to native Gaelic), while Thurso, below him fills with the tearing sound of a hurtling train:

‘& the eagle is the one we saw high over Ben Laghail
this is the cost & the measure of freedom
it rises like Pandora when the hailstones fall
it resonates in the clicking songs of the orcas
in the beating metal wheels of the Southbound train’

Here, as in many of the poems, Gunn invites us to experience with him the harmonics of his homeland: sea, and land, and people.  He trains our ears to hear the discord between local wisdoms (rooted in attentiveness to place, to the way the tides turn and fish shoal) and a top-down, South-North knowledge engineered for profit alone.  In ‘Louis in Wick’ we meet ‘Long bearded’ Caithness speaking fishers, their language, and their knowledge long founded in the experience of their coast.  In the poem, Gunn imagines their encounter with the engineers of Wick’s 19th century harbour.  It is a poem of great humour, and terrific truth:

‘“Wae aal due respect, Meester Stevenson
boot Ee’ll noh bay wantan til beeld
yer peedie pier ayr”’

Gunn lifts us then from the stiff serge coats at Wick to the site of a Norse era midden.  In ‘At Skirza’, a 9th century skaldic god, clinkers a ‘ship of poetry’ out of ‘oak pine & ash / from this & other worlds’.   In these first three poems, we see the shape of Caithness, layered like flagstone through times and across the expanse of space.  The poems look out from this coast to other horizons stretching.  Gunn has set out the scope and scale of the collection, of the particular and connected worlds considered and shared in its poetry.  Some of the words may be more familiar to Caithness ears, but Gunn is showing his poems are made for Scotland, and for the whole earth.

In the second part of the trilogy, the ‘Ormlie Elegies’ Gunn continues this tone.  Opening with ‘The Plough’, he invites us further into the generative ‘Earth’ in which his poetry is being made:

‘The lines of my poems stretch
like furrows across Ormlie Hill
they weave the pattern that I am’

Like the poet Patrick Kavanagh, before him, Gunn works the ground of his home patch.  As Kavanagh once wrote, it takes the ‘right kind of sensitive courage and … sensitive humility’ to see the universal in this specific way.  The ‘Ormlie Elegies’ are rooting and branching.  They exemplify what Édouard Glissant has called the ‘poetics of relation’, Caithness lashed to the cosmos, Gunn’s poems expressing experiences felt the world over.

The poems in this part of the trilogy are populated with those friends of Gunn’s who have gone from the fore.  Many will be known to readers here: Eberhard “Paddy” Bort, folk music ethnologist and activist; poet Tom Leonard, writer, and musician Tony McManus.  Gunn’s elegies for people, and for the places that have formed him are filled with personality, and with the urgency of the things that he wants us to care about: languages, music, historicity, and traditions in and of Scotland.  Here is all ‘the thick sweet blue salt wine of life’ including the sustainment of poetry, unlocking truth and hope:

‘… I am with the plough in the park
the seed falling in
the life of the people
the eternal barley
the plough the key in the door of the land
opening into the house of freedom
a place of light upon the world’

The final part of the trilogy gives its name to the whole collection.  ‘Chronicles of the First Light’ is prefigured in the final of the elegies, ‘A Very Long winter’, offered for Tom Leonard.  In this poem, Gunn tells us ‘that everything we know has been revealed by light’.  The collection thus far has included poems that speak of the dissonance between and across our pasts and the present, and of the synergy of earth and the sea, and the extractions and abstractions that separate us from them both.  At this threshold, he reminds us:

‘the language of history is not the language of life
it does not hold the precise force & weight of the thing said
because the people have no wish to be history’

Gunn lets us know that he casts light on what has gone before only to understand how we use the recollection of pasts and select from them to assemble our futures.  The ‘Chronicles of First Light’ exemplify what Bertolt Brecht called the ‘social function’ of poetry, seeing and expressing where we are now, what is valued and the consequences in the events around us.  This is not poetry as passive reflection.  Gunn once described his friend Hamish Henderson, as one who knew fine well what he was looking at and, like the filidh (the historic poets of the Irish Gaels) knew also what needed to be brought to light.  As Brecht had it, this kind of poetry ‘is the difference between ‘mirroring’ and ‘holding up a mirror’.

In the final thirteen poems, Gunn’s seer’s light reveals again the places and people that give him his context.  He sees cosmic, global, and national cycles of change marked out in their landscapes and faces.  Through the universal idiom of poetry, he connects these intimate observations to worldly concerns, to us.  We hear this in the poem ‘Samhain’.  Gunn sees in the vibrancy of a Highland river a fierce manifestation of society’s discord

‘the world knows
& does not know
the casual incidents
of everyday racism
a manifest of bullets’

Like the bards, charged with the responsibility to blast power with the veracity of their verse, Gunn delivers his diagnosis of the cause of these omnicidal symptoms:

‘it is raging violent
black red yellow on fire
sea air land burning
fish birds animals dead
a nation destroyed
by “what if” fear & anger
& training for war
constantly unaware
practising shock’

Gunn also focuses the beam of his lyricism to bring us exquisite incantations.  The joyous poem ‘On Beinn Hutig’, written for a bairn born before the uncanny years of pandemic, is an invitation to hold fast to what sustains.  In this praise poem for a child becoming into the deep time ‘carrying stream’ of life, Gunn coories the baby, and all of us, into the story of tribe, the heft of place, and the song we make through these with each other:

‘we are all here somewhere
singing to you now, Nell
you are a child of the cat
now that you have come home’

It is a poem for the welcome of every child, and for all who are children of this world, seeking our home within it.  In this poem, as in so many throughout this collection, Gunn calls his readers to their hamefaerin.

This encouragement is in the voice that Gunn uses in the lorica ‘I Rise up’.  The poem is an incantation against the desertification of the bogs and the straths of Caithness, and the decimation of places and cultures everywhere.  Drawing on the idiom of bards and skalds, Gunn both speaks to and out of this world while addressing the complexities that chain us to an economy built the iniquitous accumulation of wealth:

‘I rise up beyond wealth & its nuclear need
beyond scarcity & its cruel fallout
beyond fate & the cosmos
& the oppression of human reason
for the human future
will not fade away’

Gunn’s place in the lineage of Scotland’s great and well-loved poets is well-earned.  At times, the poems in this collection appear to sail alongside the sensations of former poets.  It is a testament to Gunn’s study of the tradition and his participation in poetry as a democratic language.  ‘In the time of the Pest in Atomic City’, Gunn’s ‘butter bright morning of open Sunlight’ is a sister for George Mackay Brown’s ‘buttered bannock of the moon’ (in the poem ‘Hamnavoe’).  The poetic kinship of these kennings is deep-founded in the Norse language-in-culture that endures as part of place and culture for Gunn, as it did for Brown.  In Gunn’s poem, even the scraps between hoarding shoppers at Tesco, reprised in the final couplets of each verse, can be borne in the wider and deeper context of time’s enduring cycles:

‘Low in the West is the New Moon
a thin lemon slice of promise …
a glimpse of a possible world
where they are ploughing the dark Earth
as the lambs shelter behind the flagstone fences
soaking up the keen March Sunlight
listening to the shochads piping on Buckie’s Hill
to the whaups lonely reedy trill’

There are echoes too of the Gaelic tradition that Gunn draws upon in the bilingual, polycultural legacies of his province.  In ‘Whaligeo’, Gunn stands before the ‘three hundred & sixty-five steps / fashioned like optimism into the cliff’ that descend and rise from a natural, but hard to reach harbour.  Recovering it from its Anglicised name Whaligoe, Gunn reminds us that the steps to this shore are what remains of a 19th century herring station, an index to the market economy-led greed of Caithness lairds, and their instrumental uses of land, and people’s labour, for profit:

‘I see the women of Whaligeo forever climb
these flagstone steps
like Orpheus they rise
from a passive acceptance
into the active resistance
of lasting change’

We might be in the ‘Hallaig’ of Somhairle MacGillEain where ‘chunnacas na mairbh beò’ (the dead were seen alive).  The footsteps of MacGillEain’s ‘na h-igheanan ’nan coille bheithe’ (girls like a wood of birches) and the steps of the ‘the women of Whaligeo’ are an archive for understanding the meaning of the places they fill.

The poems in the ‘Chronicles of the First Light’ sing.  The musicality of Gunn’s language blends the mundane and the epic.  Ancient sounds feel contemporary and close.  Image and rhythm combine in dynamic, sometimes cacophonous, melodies.  Verbs are released to dance out of nouns.  In ‘After Lightening’, we feel the ‘percussion of the air’ before the sea shifts and a ‘storm baleens North’.  In ‘Boxcar’, Gunn drums out ‘new tattie drills furrowed over the Black Isle’, before gently waltzing us to see them:

‘like a mother’s worry
small chocolate lava trails
arcing up the hill to Cromarty’

Gunn gives us sonnets, and he stretches them, extending the form to lift the words from the pages to our ears.  This poet knows that these are the parts of our body where we welcome language and take it in.  Like Yeats, he is expert in the use of the poetic pivot, turning the key of his verse to move our attention to what might otherwise be hidden.  This happens in the poem ‘Shadows’, where the poet’s eye shifts from an overheated summer on the streets of Ormlie, where ‘dogs sniff the littered ruts of poverty’, to alight on serendipitous beauty:

‘a child runs then stops to marvel
gathers some wool off a fence
then runs again to catch heaven
passing in her blood’

The stretching sonnet forms of the elegy ‘Donal Dhu’ fuse the history and folklore of this 17th century chief of the Clan Mackay with a more contemporary black (or orange) Donald, and others of that ilk, identifiable by their ‘accents of comedians’.  Gunn holds up the mirror to this historic Lord Reay and his folkloric alter ego, a dark forces dealing draoidh/wizard, to show us the character of our present leaders too:

‘… the complexity of a contradiction
the inarticulate speech
of a crowd-pleasing terror
working the hush at the centre of news’

We cannot afford this ‘entertainment’ Gunn warns.  The populism of the ‘laughless night’ is costly for the planet that we call home, in our knowing that we ‘cannot go home for we are here’.  The poem resonates with what Glenn Albrecht calls ‘solastalgia’, distress produced by harsh environmental change affecting people in direct connection to their own ecologies.  It is pain through lack of solace.  In the poem Gunn leaves us in no doubt as to the cause of these symptoms.  The poet’s light, we are led to imagine, is trained on the halls of Westminster:

‘Wealth & Extravagance are pinned
to the short-list hung on the wall
of the feasting hall on the island
recycled as a claim of unity’

Gunn offers remedies too.  In ’Vaccine’, the final poem of the collection, he invokes Dante, who wrote his own poetic trilogy in times of plague and unrest.  Just as Dante’s readers journeyed with him through the circles of the Divine Comedy, Gunn reminds us that throughout his own collection we are guided through the cycles of human experience.  ‘Vaccine’ confirms Gunn’s reiterative motif that love united with truth will unlock our freedom, releasing us to our inoculation:

‘“Pump all this this into your veins” the poet guide calls, walk with all who live and have lived ‘once more on the beach of life / where tides of love move all the stars’.

Poems expressing romantic love unfold throughout this collection.  In the ‘Eclogues’ we dance in and about them following Gunn’s gaze upon his wife, moving about their garden, and between the seasons, reflecting all being: the ‘morning breeze’ and ‘sea-fog’, ‘the Pentland Firth’s tidal throat’.  Both she and the environment, and the seasons they each embody, are met with a poetry of attentive tenderness:

‘when you come into the house starlings fill your space
they drink the impression of your fingers on the frosted grass’

There is a deep love too abiding in the poems ‘Chronicles of the First Light’ and ‘At the Trinkie’.  In each, Gunn turns the light to his departed mother, a ‘future remembering of the past’.  In these poems we hear the chronicler-poet’s belief that the archive is people, and that bringing them to our memory also brings us to our present selves.  Everything in this light is harvest, even ‘wisdom & doubt’ among ‘the barley swaying’.  These are poems for us when we question our capacity to bear grief.  They are poems to spill our tears over.  Gunn’s words are redolent with hope and love, and the understanding that neither is an easy weight to carry.

The poetry assembled in this new collection resonates chimes well with Algerian artist-activist, and scholar Ariella Azoulay’s concept of ‘potential history’.  In reconnecting his readers with the transformative power of releasing tradition from the bondage of directional history, Gunn recovers the potential of this experience-earned knowledge, intimating how we can use and renew it for our being in the world.  Come home to this, Gunn’s poems say.  In ‘The Bones of Scotland’, we hear his warm summons to become and belong here, to make together the potential history of Scotland, and to let this resource our worldly active lives.  The poem is Gunn’s song of encouragement to find our freedom, to say ‘yes’ to reclaiming the solace of the home that waits to welcome us:

‘… these remember are your bones also
here between hill & island
between the early May morning & the end of time
yes you too have walked out of the sea
you also are the voice in the wind
amongst the yellowing iris flags & yes the birches
with the people moving out from their sleep
like birds in the morning air yes
yes you!’.

 

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Comments (8)

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  1. Colin Robinson says:

    I like the juxtaposition of George Gunn’s poetics with Ariella Azoulay’s historiography.

    However, if (as Ariella proposes) the institutions that make our world (including our poetics and historiographies) are without exception the creatures and servants of imperial modes of thinking, then what her historiography calls for is not a poetics of ‘seeing and repairing our world’, but rather a poetics of unseeing and deconstructing that world. Anything other than the latter merely reproduces in its own praxis those same imperial modes of thinking.

    1. Cáit O'Neill McCullagh says:

      I bow to that Colin, yes. It is true, Azoulay writes very much in the spirit of Audre Lorde, who argues so clearly and plaintively that we cannot rebuild the master’s house with the master’s tools (as you’ll know). I think what is important when reading poet’s such as George Gunn, is to remind ourselves of the complexities of alterity, as it is framed in the Imperialist paradigm, which includes the dilemma, addressed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak ‘can the subaltern speak?’, under what conditions will we recognise the reclamation of voice and tradition. This is not a perfect answer, but writing from a culture where poetry is made first for transmission from mouth to ear, the social action of speaking and hearing, together, and where poetics is contextualised not by historiography, but by historicity (people’s understanding of themselves as having pasts and futures), the imagining of those futures, not as a direction, but as always potential (as a plurality of possibilities), that poiesis can only be understood in its relation to praxis. But you are right, unlearning is key to Azoulay’s thesis. I think it is at the heart of this collection of poetry too.

      1. Cáit O'Neill McCullagh says:

        Typos. Haste, apologies.

  2. sharon gunason pottinger says:

    It is a double delight to read a real book review: one which illuminates the context and the content of the poetry in its own poetic language. I have enjoyed my own copy of Chronicles and will certainly gift it to freinds and family. As the reviewer notes, rooted in Caithness but the poems and the stories behind them stretch far beyond.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      There you go: claims to universality is a characteristic feature of imperial modes of thinking.

      1. Cáit O'Neill McCullagh says:

        I think my own view on the poetry, which is the focus of this review, is that it is relational. I can’t speak for the poet, but what I have experienced as a reader are not attempts to universalise stories, but rather to speak from particular experience. My main hope is to encourage folk to read this collection.

        1. Colin Robinson says:

          The thing I like about poetry is less its lyricism (the speaking of one’s particular experience) and more its anti-lyricism (the unmaking of that experience). I poeticise to the same end as I philosophise; to loosen the metaphors by which my experience is currently constrained; to rumble things up a bit; to resist the ways of experiencing and thinking (Hilary Putnam’s ‘ways of worldmaking’) with which I’ve been colonised.

          But each to his/her own.

  3. Barry Graham says:

    I’m very happy to see this. I’ve long loved George Gunn’s poetry, and his From the Province of the Cat essays are some of my favourite contemporary nonfiction. As for universality — my American wife loves his poems.

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