The Bonniest Companie, by Kathleen Jamie – a Review
While it’s a poetry truism, that form itself has no intrinsic value, the truth of this truism’s less often stated antithesis may also be asserted: a dearth of form in poetry has, in itself, no intrinsic value. Kathleen Jamie’s latest collection, The Bonniest Companie – published thirteen months after the indyref and, in Jamie’s own words, her way of ‘participating’ in 2014, that ‘year of tremendous energy’ – consists of forty-seven fine poems; several of which read as if they could have been pushed on into different spaces if they would have faced harder formalistic challenges in their making.
Where Jamie unquestionably does succeed is in creating strident and memorable images for natural phenomena: the easterly wind in the book’s very first poem is, ‘striding up from the sea / like a bitter shepherd – ’. ‘Like a bitter shepherd’ is heavily indented, as are many of the shorter lines in the book and many of the second lines of poems, a decelerating technique, giving space to contemplate the pictures which are being magicked up. ‘A baker’s dozen’, the second line of ‘Ben Lomond’ is again such an indented line, appearing to the right of page-centre, and it’s not until the end of the page that this image for a group of ‘laddies in the Celtic shirts’ climbing this most familiar of all Scottish munroes unveils itself – they’re up on the mountain to comemmerate the death ‘of a wee boy’. Throughout, careful decisions as to where to place lines on the page in relation to the benchmark of the fixed left-hand margin of tradition have an emancipatory effect. A feeling of take-off, of levity, apt enough in texts in which birds consistently provide subject matter. With all this going on, it would seem mealy-mouthed to protest about the poet’s disinclination to engage with more demanding metres and rhyme-schemes.
One writing method appears to be as honest and straightforward as the poet starting somewhere and seeing where the linguistic road will take her – ‘23/9/14’ is a case in point. Both Burns and ‘Flowers of the Forest’ are quoted within the space of a couple of lines, Jean Elliot’s lyrics to that song being changed into, ‘Wir flags are wede awa’. In so doing, the poem simultaneously locates the defeat of the Yes Campaign in a line of great Scottish defeats stretching back beyond Flodden in 1513, and ridicules the Scottish obsession with mythologizing defeat. The synecdoche of ‘the withered leaves o shilpit trees / blaw across deserted squares’, standing for a whole body of virtuous defeat in the yes camp immediately after the vote, is deliberately hyperbolic. Come on, the varied and enriching arboreal life in Kelvin Grove Park, part of a council area in which 53.5% voted yes, did not suddenly become ‘shilpit’ in mid-September, merely because the electorate made a particular choice. Jamie realizes this, and so after allowing heart-tugging images of loss to ring out for a few more lines, ‘and the wind /– harbinger of winter – ’, abruptly pulls the plug on this lament, by brilliantly rhyming ‘etcetera’ on ‘winter’, and stating, impatiently: ‘We ken a’ that.’
Of all established Scottish poets, Jamie was the most forthright in publicly backing a vote for yes, and in explaining her reasoning behind this in her prose journalism. With this background, ‘23/9/14’ will be one of the first poems in the volume that many readers turn to. The tone of the final lines of this poem is akin to that of a football manager clapping the players on the back after a close fought but lost match, getting them to focus on the return fixture which is already visible, somewhere on the horizon: ‘Today we begin again.’ It’s remarkable how utterly free this poem is of resentment or hatred, as are all of the poems in the book. After all, it’s from Jamie’s own statements that the book reads as a chronicle of a very particular year, and aggression, hate speech and feelings of betrayal were all present, inside Scotland and in the diaspora, in the daily mix. In the ten days preceding Jamie penning this text, there had been scuffles and flags being smashed through car windows in and around George Square on the day after the indyref, and repeated volleys of international propagandistic aggression in the days leading up to the vote, including the shots fired by Deutsche Bank’s chief economist David Folkerts-Landau on September 13th, equating a vote for yes as an error on the scale of those follies which triggered the Great Depression. Jamie’s project – ‘I resolved to write a poem a week, following the cycle of the year’ – will remind poetry readers of similar modern poetry diaries written in extraordinary times, say Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal (1938), or Sorley MacLean’s The Cuilinn 1939, but also of poetry sequences following the progress of the natural year, like Vita Sackville-West’s The Land (1926). With this quality of political poetry in the lyrical tradition of the British Isles to draw upon, I do wonder why Jamie does not bring politics more explicitly into the poems, or at least allow humans and wild nature to interact more in them. The point, some may argue, where the political itself starts.
The townscapes and landscapes of these poems are often eerily de-peopled, and there’s an inversion going on too, with natural forces reoccurringly portrayed through personification, and anthropomorphism. In ‘Eyrie II’, there are signs of humans while a gale blows through the town – ‘a slate slips, wheelie-bins coup’ – but the folk themselves are well behind closed doors, while the narrator empathises with the osprey returning home through the storm to find their nest smashed to the ground by the wind: ‘What will the osprey do then, poor things, / when they make it home? / Build it up, sticks and twigs – / big a new ane.’ Stuart Kelly, writing about the book recently in The Scotsman, maintains that the use of Scots in this final line is ‘clearly political’; implying Jamie is invites us to see the osprey, having to rebuild their broken nest while the storm still rages, as a metaphor for our task of rebuilding a battered nation. It’s a testament to the poet’s skill that no one need feel cornered into embracing the interpretation. Read it straight if you want, a poem about the trials faced by a rare bird who will nest in high and rocky places.
Elsewhere, the attributing of human attitudes and concepts to forces of nature is part of a reverence for the natural world which borders on the pantheistic. The strandline in ‘Arbour’ has a ‘take-it-or-leave-it attitude’, and in ‘The Garden’, the lyrical I declares: ‘There’s mystery in my own back green / — especially in my own back green!’ Presumably this mystery can only be located in the writer’s and reader’s brain cells, and not in the grey matter in the head of the ‘speug’ (sparrow), who also features in the poem. Other lines in the collection reject any transcending reality other than this, our material one – ‘There’s this life and no hereafter – / I’m sure of that’ (‘Blossom’); or ‘Let’s take our chances here with the mortal, / the common and the mortal’, (‘The Cliff’). In this context, the poet cannot be wanting the reader to imagine the speug is feeling or thinking the mystery itself. But in comparison to the world-view contained in the conclusion to ‘The Garden’, this is mere hair-splitting. By using an image which is so close to Plato’s famous precis of Heraclitus’ philosophy – ‘you cannot step twice into the same stream’ –Jamie, who studied philosophy herself, must surely be building consciously on the message of the older, pre-Socratic philosopher:
“and as for these daisies
encamped all over the grass
same as last week’s, last year’s, same
yet not identical
to those I gazed at as a girl”
The downside of speaking up for flux or change as a key principle of our existence is that you might fall for the myth of progress, a belief that things, despite everything, are getting better. This appears to happen in ‘The Stair’, which remembers the steps which lead up to Jamie’s nana’s flat, sometime in the 1960s – ‘it’s twenty odd / years since the war, but / naebody’s bothered to scrape the black-out paint / off the stair-heid window. Oh this was a bleak land then.’ Which I’m sure it was. The description convinces, and makes you think – but isn’t it a bleak land now? An obvious response, and one I guess was planned for, in the decision to publish this line. The experience of reading it has something absurd about it, knowing that neither Jamie, nor myself, nor hardly any of her readers will be hanging out much in the many economically and culturally bleak localities which Scotland lives with today. Jamie also tends towards perceiving time passing as a process which resolves conflicts, and acts as ointment for old wounds. In ‘Another You’, addressed to her deceased mother, the difficulties in communicating with this parent while growing up were of such a magnitude, that Jamie needs to repeat them three times: ‘I couldn’t explain. I never / could explain myself, never / could explain.’ The same parent is nevertheless absolved of any deficiencies in emotional understanding, and the closure carries a welcome ambiguity – ‘that seek as I might, I’ll never / find another you. But that’s allright.’ The mother sounds bloody difficult; small wonder that her irreplaceability is ‘allright’.
If Jamie has something unique to offer amongst all the UK and Irish poets publishing today, it is the way in which she can condense her easy seeming and knowledgeable relationship with nature into moving poetic snapshots of an existence that many have lost for good. The texts can be read as paths into a place where ‘the world remains a great enchanted garden’ as Max Weber put it, a palliative medicine for the disenchantment which pervades daily life. As such, the subject matter can occasionally feel too likeable. With the disclaimer that enjoyment of the sublime is, like all metaphysical experience, economically conditioned – who hasn’t wanted to ‘bide here a moment’ after ‘a thousand-foot slog’ up a munroe or corbett, as the poet asks us to do in ‘Glacial’? And who doesn’t like retelling the hoary old legend of how the Romans came north, encountered ‘too many / wanchancy tribes’, ‘and soon thought the better of’? With narrative variance ranging from the doctoral thesis on the subject, to the Braveheart version with the baring of painted arses. The problems start when you have to come down from the mountain to face the vicissitudes of paid work or its lack, dis-location as opposed to location – the latter being more a Jamie theme – upsetting relationships which drag on for decades, and, kicking off by the autumn of 2014 already, to face Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since WW2. None of this is territory the writing wants to venture into.
It might seem perverse to debate this book in light of what it does not contain. It will seem perverse to repeat the comparison with MacNeice. And yet it was Jamie herself who made the courageous decision to start the book-launch in Edinburgh in October with a 1930s bang – Kevin Williamson reading MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’. Courageous, because audiences will interpret this as a statement – her saying, that if from anywhere, this is part of the poetic tradition out of which she has written. One thing MacNeice does, which Jamie doesn’t in this book, is descriptions of ugliness in landscape. On a night time drive from London to Oxford in 1938, MacNeice sees, ‘Factory, a site for a factory, rubbish dumps, / Bungalows in lath and plaster, in brick, in concrete, / And shining semi-circles of petrol pumps / Like intransigent gangs of idols.’ [From Autumn Journal, Part XIV]. It is a gift that Jamie has created poems about skies that we have seen too, but whose mimesis demands poetry or oils. ‘The View’ is such a poem, with, ‘all the sky’s silences, its dialects …’ Dissenters and heretics in the poetry reading public might remember other, absent, collateral elements of the same Scottish landscape which these poems are written about, while reading these texts. Like the pokey Co-op supermarkets in the smaller settlements, selling some of the worst bread in Western Europe.
Jamie has drawn strongly on national folklore to make these poems, deploying, for example, the Gaelic story of the fairy folk using delicious fruit to tempt the mortals from the land of the living up onto the high peaks, in the poem ‘The Berries’. Weird and crabbit non-conformism is another quite different element of the same national folklore, and will inform just one of a spectrum of readers’ responses, emerging right now on encountering this splendid and significant book.