Walking and climbing in a landscape of clifftops, glens, summits and strands, the speaker in Kathleen Jamie’s subtle and assured seventh collection journeys through natural spaces and often arrives at the stark boundaries between them: a Hebridean beach is ‘the land’s frayed end’ (‘Fianuis’). Boundaries are also temporal, as the poet shifts between childhood memories and the present time. Linguistically, too, this collection speaks on the border, with poems in both Scots and ‘standard’ English, but most commonly in a hybrid diction which both echoes tradition and defamiliarises it. Such boundary-lines or liminal spaces offer the potential for enormous change and transformation, like the 2014 Scottish referendum for independence which Jamie directly addresses in the poem ‘23/9/14’.
How successful was the ‘Yes’ campaign? Jamie focuses on its immediate aftermath and the consequences for nationalism: ‘so here we are, / dingit doon and weary, / happed in tattered hopes’. The poem contributes to a broader theme throughout the book by describing the failure of radical change. Jamie’s speaker regularly expresses a desire for something to happen, as in ‘Deliverance’: ‘I’m waiting for the star to rise’. In the strange dream-poem ‘The Berries’, Jamie imagines a horse taking her away to a mystical glen, but the ending is uneasy, as she is abandoned: ‘all I could do was brace myself / and loosen my grip from her mane’. The experience is a fantasy which cannot be realised; there is nowhere for the speaker to exist within it. Towards the end of the book, ‘High Water’ dramatises this more directly, tempting us to ‘take our leave’ and abandon family and friends in search of the excitement of an ‘other life’, yet the tide which takes us away brings us back, ‘home again – us, / and our shamefaced boat’. Jamie makes clear that however strong the desire to cut our ties, start anew, or reach an ideal, we should neither expect nor wish to escape our roots, and the land we come from.
The tide brings in the past: a number of the poems describe moments from childhood, such as ‘The Girls’, recreating a ‘1950s gable wall’ and a ball-game. Jamie’s reconstruction of the memory relies on the language of the past: ‘our lasses’ rhyme: plainy, clappy, / roll-a-pin’. Rhymes stick in the memory and therefore contain something of a past moment. The same is true of Jamie’s dialect words; ‘lasses’, ‘whither’, ‘whence’, ‘bairn’, whether Scots, archaic-English or both, belong in the past but can and are still used today, in colloquial speech or by Jamie the adult poet. She masterfully, and sincerely, employs archaisms alongside modern lexis, for example, ‘O whence the leaves’ sits alongside ‘Mr Greg’s Tattoos’ (‘Autumn’).
A word which reappears is ‘gloaming’, as in ‘Girls’: ‘the gloaming deepened / and one by one, we were called in’. ‘Gloaming’ is the dimming time of twilight, and as the day fades in the poem, so Jamie drifts away from the memory she is describing, as the poem draws to a close. ‘The Missing’, on the opposite page, dramatises this fading even more noticeably, where Jamie describes the memory of ‘me and Sandra McQueen’, taking charge of a ‘wee girl’ lost on their street:
Big girls, we knew the way
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaor so we thought
but the road, in its summer haze,
only seemed to lengthen, lengthen, lengthen, the more we walked.
The poem ends here, without revealing whether or not the girls found their way back into town, whether or not the lost girl found safety. The ellipsis demands the question, does the adult speaker herself remember what happened? In any case, the ending does not exist in the poem, and so is not recreated for the time of the reader; it is lost, missing. Jamie gives a voice to the past, but her lyrics can only contain a moment of time which soon disappears. Everything that comes in, goes out again.
‘Another You’, a beautiful elegy for the poet’s mother, ends with ‘seek as I might, I’ll never / find another you. But that’s alright’. Like the missing girl, her mother is momentarily held in the space of the poem, but is ultimately lost. By saying ‘that’s alright’, Jamie asks us to accept such passing – or gloaming. In ‘The Garden’, the speaker sees the daisies on the grass, ‘same / yet not identical / to those I gazed at as a girl’. Just as the daisies of the 1950s are long gone, so the little girl she once was cannot be reclaimed – and yet, here are the daisies, year after year. Only nature, with its tides, seasons and migratory swans which ‘recall / thousands of years ago’ (‘Migratory III’), stay the same. Jamie invites us to accept the world as it is, in its continual repetitions, cycles and flow. ‘Change, change – that’s what the terns scream […] everything else is provisional / us and all our works’ (‘Fianuis’). These poems are provisional, moments in time – read them, be transported, and then return to land.
By Phoebe Power
The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie, Picador