Waterlight: Selected Poems
Graywolf Press, $14 (paper)
Findings: Essays on the Natural and Unnatural World
Graywolf Press, $14 (paper)
By Kathleen Jamie
The opening essay of Kathleen Jamie’s charmingly brooding book Findings discovers her on a winter-solstice pilgrimage to a 5,000-year-old tomb. The trip turns out to be only partially successful. She hopes to stand in a dim room at Skara Brae, a Neolithic site once aligned by pagan stoneworkers to movements of the sun, so that she can glimpse a pale square of light at midday. But modernity intrudes, since the millennia-old stones are being monitored by the same microscopic cameras used to film organs in arthroscopic surgery. Instead of watching solstice dark, she ends up having coffee with a stoneworker and discussing how the Neolithic tomb might be seen on a Web site. She then reflects that she and the workers are both like and unlike the people who would have stood in the tomb 5,000 years ago. She is bemused.
This is a fair introduction to the concerns of a writer the Sunday London Times called “the leading Scottish poet of her generation,” one who is only now finding an American audience. In 2007, Graywolf Press published both Waterlight, her potent selected poems, and Findings, her equally remarkable collection of essays about sites where nature and non-nature intersect. American readers can now meet a sensibility who attends to the living world, and the world as made in language, with wily intelligence.
In fact, it is the complex relationship between the apparently “real” and the merely “aesthetic” that most fascinates Jamie. She loves finding and exploring the paradoxes. In one essay, Jamie watches salmon leap fabulously up a river in which they have been artificially seeded, even as she watches art students photograph them for a class on nature photography. In another, she visits the Outer Hebrides only to find traces of lost fishing cultures overwhelmed by modern garbage on the beach. She ends up wondering what the ancient Scots, with their careful tribal tools, would have made of plastic. Jamie tells stories about topics as varied as city skylines, old herding grounds in summer highlands, and the management of peregrine falcons. She describes her travels with improbable and often hilarious similes. A local postman becomes an “awk-shaped man.” A peregrine falcon “lifts its feet like a child checking for chewing gum.”
Born in 1962, Jamie published early in the United Kingdom. At nineteen, she won a prestigious Eric Gregory Award and used her money to travel through the Himalayas. Now in her mid-forties, a contemporary of Robin Robertson, Simon Armitage, and Glyn Maxwell, she lives on the Firth of Tay and teaches at the University of St Andrews. Her output is slim and focused sharply on gender and place. She likes to decode sites where the past and present coexist and collide, unraveling observations in the attempt to solve questions as large as how “to live / on this damp ambiguous earth?”
The typical Jamie poem, especially of late, is simple of speech, engaged in the observation of things that become “as you looked, almost / beautiful.” At her best, Jamie’s poems track ways actual nature is shaped in human acts of imagining, as in “Before the Wind,” in which:
Wild means stones barely
clothed in flesh, but that’s rich
coming from me. A mouth
contains a cherry, a cherry
a stone, a stone
the flowering branch
I must find before the wind
scatters all trace of its blossom,
and the fruit comes, and yellow-eyed birds.
The cycle, resembling a recantation of the folk song about the cherry that has no stone, deftly reframes the wild as partly imaginary and partly made through the telling. Where is wild? Who is wild? What does it mean to be clothed in flesh? Jamie’s poem riddles nature, making it something that emerges through imagination and song. But imagination, for Jamie, is not to be opposed to the real. Instead, it is the space in which we take part of any wildness at all. As she remarks in “The Bower,” the world’s richness is “an attitude of mind // mere breath rising in staves.”
It is fitting for Jamie to write about bowers. Her poems are themselves temporary homes, with the poet as something of the proverbial bowerbird. The places she observes and visits need to be inhabited to exist, and they run the risk of vanishing once left behind. It is no surprise that this version of nature overlays Jamie’s version of the space of the poem, which for her is also a structure that exists only so long as we inhabit it. As a poetic notion, the bower is decidedly nineteenth-century, the kind of place where Endymion would linger—and which, when he left, would disappear entirely. Jamie, however, lends the figure a twenty-first-century urgency wrought of her own and her readers’ sense of real-time threat. Destruction looms behind, around, or even in Jamie’s nature poems. No sooner has she remarked upon two mating frogs “mottled to leafy brown / . . . pale as over-wintered grass,” than a car smears them both “into one— belly / to belly, tongue thrust utterly into soft brain.” In another poem, pipistrelles “vanished, suddenly, // before we’d understood.” Cars can pass the carrion they have made, because people do not take the time to absorb the proximity to a parallel world we enter and leave as visitors “neither / more true nor more right.”
Instead, Jamie places what faith she has in the act of observation. In “The Glass-hulled Boat” she watches “vaguely uterine jellyfish //. . . / spun out, when our engines churn, / on some sudden new trajectory, / fuddled, but unperturbed.” Later, white-sided dolphins glimpsed from a boat follow her for a while, then go back to being “true to their own / inner oceanic maps.” The shark she is watching in “Basking Shark” becomes “dark and buoyed like a heart / that goes on living / through a long grief.” These observations of nature might satisfy less, as if too easily resolving our hunger to reach across the person/nature divide. After all, as Keats surely knew, a bower is a false home, and the desire for a false home can smack of nostalgia. But Jamie’s writing is more often than not sparklingly self-aware, alive to the ways she both is and is not a part of the worlds she observes and remakes in language. In, say, James Wright’s poetry (which Jamie quotes), Wright has a fierce desire to leap across boundaries and skins, into the body of another. As he famously says in “A Blessing,” “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.” Wright’s poem works through a metaphor that half-imagines his body into the shape of a tree, and it rests on an uneasy if/then premise of a dream-world where such a thing could happen. Jamie, with her penchant for witty similes, works language differently, positioning nature and non-nature as proximate spaces. Her shark is merely like a heart. In her writing, separate worlds travel through and across one another, while the hinge of the simile calls attention to the deliberate acts of observation that bind them. Unlike Wright, Jamie does not imagine a mythic space where she will become a shark or a tree. At one point, Jamie asks, “what could one do but watch?” What, indeed?
Language itself is the great landscape on which this drama—of connectedness, of proximity, of the failure and hunger to know and belong to nature, unfurls itself.
Tell, for one thing. Jamie’s similes, born of careful observation, act to stitch together some wider world. In Jamie, the simile is a form of repair, one that threads the human world back out through the natural one and then brings the world of the falcons, examining chewing gum on their feet, closer to the world of humans. Indeed, watching and mending are deeply linked in Jamie’s work, as if she believes that, now especially, attentiveness is itself a form of repair. In her best poems, it is not that the poet’s attentiveness can restore, but that observation allows the possibility of mending. In these poems noticing makes space for the presence of something other than our befuddled selves. “The bats were a single / edgy intelligence, testing their idea / for a new form / which unfolded and cohered // before our eyes.” Jamie tests her hypothesis without quite proving it: “The world’s mind / is such interstices . . . // is that what they were telling us?” This is the typical dagger in Jamie’s work: we don’t seem capable of watching enough. If there is a cosmic intelligence, we catch it from our all too transient vantage.
Meanwhile, for Jamie, language itself is the great landscape on which this drama—of connectedness, of proximity, of the failure and hunger to know and belong to nature—unfurls. The aesthetic and the real are not truly opposed after all. The wildness of the stone is also made in the mouth that tells it. And if Jamie’s mouth is going to care for the world in all its expressive diversity, she very well needs her own historically rooted tongue. Each Scots dialect word she uses is a kind of cairn, a landmark that holds both past and culture in its thrall. Fittingly, she introduces these Scots words liberally. They stud her lines as descriptions of a “place hained by trees” or a woman “thirled to her private chore.” Her richest dialect poems sent this American—one from the perennially forgetful land of California—deep into the Oxford English Dictionary and online to Scots-English dictionaries, even then to come up occasionally empty-handed. In “Speirin,” which means seeking, or asking, or hoping, she writes:
Binna feart, hinny,
yin day, we’ll gang thegither
tae thae stourie
and loss wirsels—
see, I’d raither
whummel a single oor
intae the blae o thae wee flo’ers
than live fur a’ eternity
in some cauld hivvin.
Wheest, nou, till I spier o ye
will ye haud wi me?
The text, loosely translated, says: “Don’t be afraid, honey, one day we’ll gang together in the dusky bluebell fields and lose ourselves. See, I’d rather knock back a sole hour in the rich blue-black of these wee flowers than live an eternity in some cold heaven. Hush now, while I’m asking you: won’t you come with me?” Or, simply, “Gather ye bluebells while ye may.” It’s like Robert Herrick, but darker, and it’s rendered here in a way that draws out the potencies of words themselves: Stourie, the heap, has to do with store and stow. Whummel is a word for knocking over and overthrowing—as if, defiantly, a king—but also for knocking back a beer or wasting an hour. (I was delighted to find a digitized 1823 book called Suffolk Words and Phrases: Or, An Attempt to Collect the Lingual Localisms, which notes near “whummel” and its cognates: “In Scottish these words may be little else than our whelm, with a little change of the final sound.” Thus, whummeling is akin to overwhelming, which itself means to be knocked down, at least emotionally.) Blae, one I would love to resuscitate for lots of dusky occasions, is a term for bluish black. All demand that we venture deep into the word-hoard of language, of which Jamie has made her own careful store. It is interesting to note that the one set of words that comes through clearly in what we call standard English is the scorned “eternity in a cold heaven,” as though the Latinate concept has been imported, grafted into the language, but is still something of a suspicious character.
Jamie’s attentiveness to watching and using old language suggests that both acts occupy similar places in her poetics. She believes that by using the old in the present—not in some museumy hermetic way, but allowing it valence and currency—we enrich our understanding of ourselves and our time on earth among humans. She believes that things don’t disappear when they are used up, but disappear when we stop using them altogether.
Of course, disappearance haunts her too. We live in a moment of cultural upheaval built upon centuries of upheaval before it. Jamie’s interest in Scottish identity occasionally manifests as a curiosity about all the people who left Scotland for America. Readers of Irish poetry will be well acquainted with this theme, but I, at least, had not thought of the Scottish. Jamie, more than once, casts her country as a land of people looking out to sea, with a feeling of having been divided, halved, or left behind, thinking of sisters or aunts a continent away. While New World transplants often write about their longing for old countries, Jamie offers a view from the other side, as she does in “Pioneers”:
It’s not long ago. There were,
after all, cameras
to show us these wagons and blurred dogs,
this pox of burnt stump-holes
in a clearing. Pioneers;
their remains now strewn
across the small-town
museums of Ontario:
the axe and plough, the grindstone,
the wife by the cabin door
dead, and another sent for.
Elizabeth Bishop once declared a Florida site a place where “all the untidy activity continues / awful but cheerful.” For Jamie, too, what’s awful is awful—garbage on the Hebrides, for instance—but also fascinating. She forages a doll’s head from the beach, placing it with a whale’s vertebrae on her desk. She looks at the two together. Her work is made of puzzling out the nature of these juxtapositions. She is never wholly sure of the answers to the problems she circles, but her uncertainties are her strengths. It is her ability to excavate the questions that enriches us.