This is my second book review on this blog, following a review of The Dark Film a few weeks ago.
Douglas Dunn is a Scottish poet who once worked in Hull with Philip Larkin. Northlight (London: Faber and Faber, 1988) was his eighth poetry collection. It was a Poetry Book Society Choice.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Northlight. I’d only encountered Douglas Dunn before in anthologies and remember finding his work somewhat impenetrable, so it was a pleasant surprise to find this book to be so accessible.
Dunn has a real talent in building up a scene and painting a full, atmospheric picture. Many of these poems are set in his home by the Firth of Tay and he takes great pleasure in bringing to life places that perhaps wouldn’t seem natural material for poetry – rail bridges, grey estuaries, minor ruins. I willingly followed him into this landscape.
In ‘Daylight,’ for instance, Dunn describes Buddon Ness, an area of sandbanks on the Tay Estuary:
“The big white arms of dawn are cool
In their embrace, and merciful
First blue dispels the estuary’s
Possessive, tenemented greys.”
I felt like Dunn’s landscape was a landscape of greys, but a landscape where sunlight peeked through the clouds and lit up the sea, the rain and the land. Perhaps this is what the word Northlight means. It feels like a Scottish landscape; it feels like it’s Dunn’s landscape and he cares about it. After several of these poems I cared about it too. He captures this feeling beautifully in ‘Here and There’:
“You say it’s mad to love this east-coast weather –
I’ll praise it, though, and claim its subtle light’s
Perfect for places that abut on water
Where swans on tidal aviaries preen their whites.”
Yet Northlight isn’t only set in Scotland. In other parts of the book Dunn takes us on journeys to far-flung parts of the world, and this creates some fascinating contrasts and new focal points.
In ‘A House in the Country,’ the narrator enters a crumbling house in rural Italy and imagines meeting (or is it imagines being?) the occupant:
“Webs fold and curdle in the sunlit wind’s
Expulsion of the shadows, and a man
Appears from nowhere or the mind’s
Liberty to be more than one.”
(Incidentally, this poem begins with the simple sentence: “Not Scotland.” Just in case we weren’t sure that we’d moved to another country!)
In ‘Dieback,’ the setting is Australia. Dunn compares this very alien landscape to his native Scotland. You can hear his uncertainty as he describes a place with which he is less at home:
“… nature here is angrier than
Than sanity can bear to contemplate.”
Later in the book, the poems return to Scotland, although towards the end of the collection they become more overtly political and even Scottish-nationalistic. In ‘The Dark Crossroads’ the Scottish narrator see his identity through the eyes of the customers of an English pub and feels himself revolting against it, his “bloodlust / soured into ink.”
There’s the odd poem in here that’s a total departure from the topics mentioned above. This review wouldn’t be complete without a mention of ‘An Address to Adolphe Sax in Heaven,’ an delightful, jaunty elegy to the inventor of the saxophone. These departures add extra structure to the collection as a whole, and helped keep me interested throughout.
I’d heartily recommend Northlight to anyone. Just be prepared to spend a bit of time with each poem, letting Dunn build up his scene and allowing yourself to be drawn into it. You’ll feel part of his landscapes, his characters, and most importantly his identity – and really what more can you ask from a poem?
Five Words that describe this book: grey, Scottish, evocative, proud, complete.
Stand Out Poems: ‘Here and There’; ‘An Address to Adolphe Sax in Heaven’; ‘Memory and Imagination.’
Killer Line: “Skin looked like this two hundred years ago.” (from ‘Love-making by Candlelight’)
There are very few reviews of Northlight available on the internet.
Robert Crawford, in The London Review of Books, describes Northlight as being a celebration of Dunn’s “home-making” on the Firth of Tay, but says that it also points to the “physical” and “intellectual” pressures of living in a provincial place.
The poem ‘Here and There’ is discussed in Devolving English Literature, again by Robert Crawford, which can be viewed on Google Books. Here, Crawford says that Dunn is concerned with “transcend[ing] the divisions between metropolitan and provincial” yet is “also aware of the dangers of becoming lost in his own world.”
The book’s original Faber and Faber sleeve describes Northlight as demonstrating a “wide-ranging artistry and imagination” and that “Dunn’s diction is characterized by an effortless Marvellian candour and a measured classical elegance.”