A Nature Poet with an Eye for Human Nature
A Contrary review by Shaindel Beers

Everyone seems to agree on the quality of Kathleen Jamie’s poetry if not on the nature of the poet. The London Sunday Times has referred to her as “the leading Scottish poet of her generation,” and she has consistently won or been shortlisted for nearly every major British poetry prize since she turned nineteen. Yet, The Poetry Archive says, in its biography:

Only in . . . The Tree House has Jamie been free to leave behind the distracting "issues" of gender and national and personal identity, to move towards what she originally set out to be: a nature poet asking, in these latest poems, how human beings can live in a right relationship with the natural world. 

The Feminist Review Blog says Jamie’s latest collection, Waterlight, has an “understated wonder” that “sneaks up on the reader” and commends the fact that “Jamie’s feminist sensibilities  shine through.” Jamie has an academic background in philosophy (degree from the University of Edinburgh), and she may express her personal philosophy toward poetry best when she writes, “If poetry is a method of approaching truths, and each of us with a human soul and ‘a tongue in oor heids’ can make an approach toward a truth, poetry is inherently democratic.”
Throughout Waterlight, which includes selected poems from her previous collections, The Tree House, Jizzen, and Mr. and Mrs. Scotland Are Dead, Jamie approaches many truths—what it is to be human, what it is to co-exist with nature, what it is to be female, what it is to be Scottish. The first poem out of this substantial (108-page) collection to astound me on several levels is only the second poem in the collection, “Frogs.”  Firstly, Jamie’s description of the frogs is breathtaking:

	But for her green
	palpitating throat, they lay   
	inert as stone, the male
	fastened like a package
	to her back. They became

	as you looked, almost
	beautiful, her back
	mottled to leafy brown,
	his marked with two stripes,
	pale as over-wintered grass.

Then, in what would be an unforgivable move for a lesser poet, a car runs over the mating pair. Jamie makes even this beautiful, describing them as:

	 . . . smear[ed] . . .
	into one—belly
	to belly, tongue thrust
	utterly into soft brain.
and what could become a trite poem becomes a meditation on our place in the universe—as humans, and, if you were so born, as a woman:
		Oh how we press on—
		the car and passengers, the slow
		creatures of this earth,
		the woman by the verge 
		with her hands cupped.

Jamie not only uses nature as a contrast to our humanness, but uses personification to describe nature. In the first of two poems titled “Rhododendrons,” Jamie describes the flowers as:
		but a handful of purple baubles
		reflected below the water’s surface
		as comfortable and motionless
		as a family in their living room

		watching TV….

Our narcissistic impulse to see ourselves in everything can help us see our interconnectedness with nature. For all of my years of rural living, I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing rhododendrons reflected under a lake, but on night walks, I have seen neighbors gathered around a TV, and when I read this description of the rhododendrons, I thought, “Yes. They could look just like that.”  But Jamie’s work continues beyond this image, and this poem, too, becomes a meditation on the nature of being human.

		 . . . What was it,
		I’d have asked, to exist
		so bright and fateless

		while time coursed
		through our every atom
		over its bed of stones—?

		But the darkness was weighing
		the flowers and birds’ backs,
		and already my friends had moved on.

In what could seem a simplistic ending, Jamie plays on a powerful duality. The speaker is called away from a meditation on nature by a primal fear of being alone in the dark and by a need for human society.
Jamie uses another tool of the poet — the line break — perhaps better than any living poet I have read recently. In “Pioneers,” a poem lauded by The Feminist Review Blog, Jamie describes a photograph of a cabin belonging to Canadian settlers:

	the axe and plough, the grindstone,
	the wife by the cabin door
	dead, and another sent for.

Before the final line, this poem is a description of the settling of rural Ontario. It is a photograph including “wagons and blurred dogs.” It is not until the first word of the final line that we get the meaning of the “wife by the cabin door”—that she is another tool abandoned on the landscape, like the “axe and plough, the grindstone”—and just like these farm implements, replaceable.
The back cover of this collection reads that “at last . . . Jamie’s work [is] available to American readers.” At last is correct. If I had known this poetry existed, I would have longed for it. My only caveat about this book is that the poems in the Scots dialect are difficult. I had to read all of them aloud and, still, I am not sure that I have understood them. I look forward to reading more of Jamie’s work. Next on my list is Findings, a book of nature essays Jamie wrote during her husband’s hospital stay for a life-threatening illness—including observations of cobwebs in the hospital, meditations out her kitchen window. It will be exciting to read Jamie in another genre, outside of the sparseness of poetry.

Shaindel Beers is the poetry editor of Contrary.

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Waterlight: Selected Poems
Kathleen Jamie
2007,  Graywolf Press
commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | winter 2008

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