Outdoors in the more-than-human


The Bonniest Companie, Kathleen Jamie (62pp, 9.99, Picador)


This is Kathleen Jamie's book of 2014, 'a year', she writes, 'of tremendous energy, and, knowing I wanted to embrace that energy and participate in my own way, I resolved to write a poem a week, following the cycle of the year.' Combine this with the blurb's assertion The Bonniest Companie 'will stand as a remarkable document of our times' and I'm expecting poems explicitly engaged with Scottish independence - but only one refers to the referendum.

For the most part these are short, plain-speaking poems which look out on birds, hills, deer, shore - whatever comes the poet's way. The document is of Kathleen Jamie's own year rather than 'of our times', a year in which she's at home, in New York, can see the Western Isles, visits North Rona, the poems keyed into the year's cycle by solstices, snow, specific dates ('The Heronry' opens '6th Feb, a Saturday. I wheel my bike...') and seasonal indications like 'April morning, rising mist' ('The Glen').

This almost-diary style is spontaneous and intimate, informal and conversational and comes with a natural sprinkling of Scots words:

     As good a climb as any, now the day's near done
                            the hill ahent the bothy -
     a dry burn, then a basalt knuckle
     like a throne
                      should you care to queen it
                                                                      [from 'The Lighthouse']

With a natural voice like this, the poems are deceptively easy to read. But re-reading you begin to see how they're built to key into the moment with
'this easterly', 'thon blackbird', 'here comes a squall', 'we're here again' -
the language all immediacy. Events may be small ones in poems like 'Eyrie I', but we're in there with her:

     I was feart we'd lost the falcons
     and the falcons' eyrie
     from the whinstone quarry back o the town
     - their favoured plinth
                             vacant so long
     grasses had raised
                 thin flags over it, and winter rain
     washed away their mutes,
     but here she is! Conjured out of drizzle
     and March mist...

Small events, conversational tone, descriptions of the moment - it can't be easy to pull these together lightly and send you back into the poem, which Kathleen Jamie often manages to do. She ends 'Ben Lomond' - about 'laddies in the Celtic shirts.../ lumbering all the way to the summit cairn / the last hot Saturday of May' to take a particular photograph - asking you to re-consider:

     There's no accounting for it, is there?
                                                   I mean the low road, and the high.

More than half the poems are outdoors in the more-that-human-world, but there are also poems of childhood and memory (a cluster of them just after midsummer). She remembers her grandmother, her mother, holding skeins of wool, itchy jumpers, playing with friends - I've less interest in this sort of poem myself, though there are a couple in which she pulls the past forward into her current concerns: 'Corporation Road II', only eight lines long, about being on a swing, is completely at home among the rest with its

     come back, said the Earth
     I have your shadow

And the referendum poem? '23/9/14' is a poem of 'tattered hopes' and 'deserted squares' - but Kathleen Jamie undercuts the despondency with 'We ken a' that' and moves the poem forward with 'It's Tuesday. On wir feet...'
The challenge of picking up the pieces and starting again is so simply and effectively caught in that 'On wir feet.' It's a great poem, as is another which addresses a political problem: 'Wings over Scotland' is a found poem which details the persecution of raptors on grouse moors. It is set as a simple list over a full page and allowed to speak for itself; it opens

     Glenoigil Estate: poisoned buzzard (Carbofuran).
                                                                                            No prosecution
.
     Milden Estate: poisoned buzzard (Alphachloralose).
                                                                                            No prosecution
.
     Milden Estate: poisoned golden eagle 'Alma' (Carbofuran)
                                                                                            No prosecution
.

a world away from Kathleen Jamie's own stance towards and understanding of wildlife. 'Glen' is a poem which articulates this clearly:

     So if you don't mind, heather of the hillside,
     and if it's alright by you, small invincible bird,
     I'll lean on this here boulder
     by the old drove road
     and get my eye in, lighting on this and that.

     'It's nothing to us' you might shrug,
     - and you'd be right.

I've read the book half a dozen times now, with real pleasure. I like Picador's new wider format (and better paper). And the cover image is striking - visual references to several poems overlaying a map of North Rona.

     Jane Routh 2015

___
(Carbofuran is an illegal pesticide in the EU, highly toxic to raptors.)