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
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
whinstone quarry back o the town
vacant so long
thin flags over it, and winter rain
but here she
is! Conjured out of drizzle
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:
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
said the Earth
I have your
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
Estate: poisoned buzzard (Carbofuran).
Estate: poisoned buzzard (Alphachloralose).
Estate: poisoned golden eagle 'Alma' (Carbofuran)
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
and get my
eye in, lighting on this and that.
to us' you might shrug,
- and you'd
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
(Carbofuran is an
illegal pesticide in the EU, highly toxic to raptors.)