by Margaret Chrystall
HIGHLAND writer Angus Dunn died before he could hold a copy of his first poetry book in his hands, but was “really happy” with the book he knew would follow his death.
In Strathpeffer and later at Pluscarden, Angus – who was suffering from motor neurone disease – worked on putting the book High Country together with help from Chris Powici, editor of new writing quarterly magazine Northwords Now.
Chris said: “Angus was so many different things, he was a short story writer and a novelist and he was also a joiner and he took his carpentry – his work and those skills – very seriously.
“So I don’t think of him as a writer focused on poetry and I think it came to him quite late that making a collection was something he’d like.
“The quality of his poems was always there, but the collection was a belated thing in some ways.
“But it’s a book that needed to be there, rather than just another book a poet puts out.”
Over his 35-year writing career, Angus had published a big novel set in the Black Isle, Writing In The Sand and it was nominated for the Saltire Society First Book Prize in 2008, had published a book of short stories, The Perfect Loaf, in 2006 and had won the Neil Gunn writing competition in 2002.
Angus’s poetry – which he had written since he was a young man – has been published in magazines and anthologies.
Originally brought up in Cromarty, Angus had been a writer in residence in Aberdeenshire, run writing workshops and worked as a tutor at Moniack Mhor writing centre outside Inverness and had edited Northwords himself before becoming manager of it.
Chris said: “When I got to know him, Angus was the manager – that was about six years ago now. We’d come across each other’s names because he had published poems of mine.
“But I got to know him then and we became friends. I didn’t really know him long enough or well enough – he was someone I assumed would be around for a long time.”
Chris worked with Angus on putting the book together.
“The order of the poems was something we talked about quite a bit. We thought really hard about which poems to include – because some were really great if you read them aloud – but we went for ones that also really cut it on the page.
“We didn’t want the book to be big, more of a slim volume, but we thought all these poems pulled their weight.”
Angus was also involved in how the book would look and saw it in electronic form.
“He was really happy with how it was going to look, the size and colour of it and the typeface for the text.
“So though Angus didn’t live to see the final book, he knew which poems were in it and in what order – and it wasn’t an idea, it was a reality.
“And he knew that before he died. So we were very pleased that Creative Scotland who helped and Sandstone Press could make that happen.”
Asked to try to define what Angus’s signature was as a poet, Chris said: “I think one thing for me about Angus in his poems is he loved making connections between things like science and religion, the personal life and the wider world, human beings and animals.
“He was curious about the world and very open. And I think that that openness is in the poetry.
“It’s not naive poetry, he understands that there’s good and bad, pain and pleasure.”
There’s a jokey play on words in the poem Canna – Can and Chris laughed: “We used to swap puns sometimes – and I think that was part of the pleasure of making for him.
“He took his craft really seriously, which is why the pun work so well.
“His poems are not just his imagination which was so feral and wild, it was also that writing for him was like a craft – as with his woodworking. He knew you had to do it well.
“You couldn’t say anything worth saying unless you knew how to say it. And I think that is there in the poems.
“The best of them are magical but you have to work on the writing to make it work.”
High Country has already had compliments from one national paper, where the title poem – a climb in the north-west Highlands mysteriously leads to the Himalayas and back in time – becomes “a dream-like, almost shamanistic flight of imagination”.
The reviewer also picks up on moments where the idea of death stalks through some of the poems.
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’, says the reviewer.
“I think it really works as a book and you get a real sense of the person behind the poems, this is not a random selection of poems.
“Angus had a particular way of looking at the world and his poems are an expression of that – and him.
“I think he was excited by people doing and making things – writing a song or a novel, or making pieces of furniture. It was the joy of making something that he loved, I think.
“What his real skill was was ear the end of the making things out of other things. Wood or words. He was almost religious about it."
The end of Angus's poem It Is Not, near the end of High Country, reminds you of that:
IT IS NOT
It is not that I expect to see
The unfolding of my plans.
It is not that I want the world
to shape itself around me.
It is not that I believe
the future is made
by my desire, by my intention.
It is this:
I want the texture of my life
to be smooth and rough
to be patterned and plain,
the taste to be salt,
with tears, and
bitter with agonies
and sweet with reconciliation,
the heart to be broken
and mended, the face
to be stricken and peaceful
the lines of my mouth and eyes
to tell a story
worth the telling
and the hands, though broken,
to hold the shadows
of objects made,
or dragons wrestled
of skin caressed.
High Country by Angus Dunn (Sandstone Press £6.99).