WHEN the novelist, short story writer and poet Angus Dunn died in August, following a battle with motor neurone disease, Scotland lost a significant and highly unusual literary talent.
The magnitude of that loss is demonstrated by High Country – a book of selected poems edited by Chris Powici with a foreword by Ian Stephen. It was pulled together just in time for Dunn to see it in electronic form before he passed away, and has now been published by Sandstone Press.
Dunn’s most obvious successes were in prose: his 2006 novel Writing In The Sand was shortlisted for the Saltire Society’s First Book of the Year Award, and his short story collection, The Perfect Loaf, was published by Two Ravens Press in 2008. His poems had appeared in a range of literary magazines over the years, but they had never before been released in book form, so the completion of this project was important to him. As he puts it in the acknowledgements: “I am delighted that some of my favourite arrangements of words will be available to those curious enough to search them out.”
Dunn has been described as a “Highland magical realist” poet, and perhaps the best example of this aspect of his work is the poem that gives the collection its title. In a dream-like, almost shamanistic flight of imagination, a walk in the hills in the far north-west of Scotland becomes an epic journey both through space – to the Himalayas – and through time – to the era of the woolly mammoth. In a blur of campfire smoke and fading light, the real and the imagined overlap.
For all their otherworldly mystique, however, Dunn’s poems are underpinned by a rational philosophy. In “Church, Gairloch” he offers some profoundly humanistic advice: “Look again into the deeps, / into honest darkness; / turn from eternal twilight / and if there is no other choice, / still, choose the night.” Similarly clear-sighted examinations of the implications of death crop up again and again, and although that might sound negative, the implications are usually positive. In “Crows In The Morning,” the thought that perhaps the crows sound so content simply because they have “the chance to bicker and hop / and to behave like crows / for one more day” yields the realisation that this, too, is how we should “raise ourselves / into the delicate dawn”. And in the elegiac “Moon Return”, in which the ebb and flow of the tides stands for the ebb and flow of life, he writes: “This life too will fill / and fade, but when it’s gone / something of me and you will carry on.” n