I’ve been reading Kathleen Jamie’s collections Sightlines (2012) and The Overhaul (2012), in readiness for a graduate student discussion. The Overhaul is a collection of lyrical poems that, amongst other things, confronts the paradoxes and pains of isolation and our desire for shared experience. Each poem reaches for connections – literary, linguistic and cultural. Maria Johnnston wrote in her review for the Guardian that these ‘dynamic and disturbing’ poems owe a debt to Seamus Heaney and Gerard Manly Hopkins. I’m a Romantic studies specialist with an interest in literary places and memory, so other voices also spoke to me from among the witch-note voices of the past. Jamie’s response to Friedrich Hölderlin, acknowledged in the poems ‘Tae the Fates’ (38) and ‘Hauf o’ Life’ (48), connects wittily with German Romanticism. Her quiet use of Scots-frisian words (‘swier,’ in ‘Tae the Fates’) adds an elemental sense of northern connectedness: etymology connects ‘swier’ with German ‘schwer,’ Dutch ‘zwaar,’ Swedish ‘svår’ and the Middle English ‘sweer.’ The lineages extend into deep time, in the sense that Wai Chee Dimock defines that critical term in Through Other Continents, to roots in Latin and ancient Greek. ‘Tae the Fates,’ – like many of Jamie’s other poems – looks back to the origins of the western literary tradition. The mixture of Scots (my students say it sounds exotic) and English performs a danse macabre of frustrated desire – ‘but gin ah could mak whit’s halie / an maist dear tae me – ane perfect poem.’ The lineages don’t stop there, and there’s more enquiry through dictionaries to be done. After the fragments and glamourie (the title of the poem on pp. 42 – 43, and a word I’ve written about elsewhere), the motifs of sky, water, birds, trees and islands, the last poem in the collection responds to W. B. Yeats’s ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ – Jamie writes that we’re ‘out all day and damn all to show for it,’ with ‘bird-bones,’ ‘rope-scraps,’ and ‘a bit o’ bruck’s’ being ‘all we’ll leave behind us when we’re gone’ (50). I’ll write more about this collection, which I love. Jamie is a Saphho of northernness. (And the James Dodds’s linocut on the cover is a lyrical piece in its own right. . .)
Sightlines shares motifs and themes with The Overhaul: the sea, the sky, the wind, birds, whales, bones, stones, islands, light, dark, sound, silence, isolation and desolation. The genre being the essay, narrative here competes with a lyricism that persists from the poetry. One essay, ostensibly concerning pathology and disease, imagines human body parts through cartographical metaphors associated with Scotland and the North. Lilias Fraser’s review for The Bottle Imp provides a nuanced overview of the collection. Jamie’s ironic sense of a ‘cultural landscape’ that extends to the night sky is compulsive reading. She says of St. Kilda, a formerly inhabited island and now a Unesco World Heritage Site: ‘A “cultural landscape” they called it, but up on the island’s heights . . . you could be forgiven for asking where, in this wild place, was culture?’ (152). Of space, she writes that her companion distracted her – brought her back to earth – by ‘checking his data-logger to see if more satellites had climbed into the cultural landscape of the heavens’ (158-59). I’m talking with my students about literary geographies of the north and west, place and space. We’re questioning whether any of those concepts can ever be more than imaginative constructions and projections of our own desires. Jaimie writes, with her trademark qualifier, ‘but we’re in the North’ (230). She’s moved from the icebergs of Greenland, in the first essay, to Shetland and Orkney. Whales offer connections that lead from Alaska to Berwick-on-Tweed and a sense of impending catastrophe: a fibreglass replica in a Berwick museum sets in motion a chain of tragic association as she wonders ‘whether it was a principled decision not to source a real whale’s jaw’ (235). A final elemental reflection – ‘The winds and the sea. Everything else is provisional,’ gives way to a photograph of a whale’s fluke, arched and dripping with ocean. I should have allowed our discussion to overrun. . .