Reviewed by Will Burns
To what extent can writing truly be about the natural world? The poet’s primary occupation has to be linguistic, the poem must be the poem’s own ultimate enquiry. And so writing about the world around us necessitates a human element at its centre. Elements of observation, and crucially, of language. At first glance many of the poems in Kathleen Jamie’s The Overhaul appear to concern themselves with those ideas that so readily identify as the natural—there is weather and landscape and the ocean and perhaps most importantly, creatures. And yet looming behind, or at the edges of, or even violently imposing itself upon each carefully crafted pastoral is a demonstrably human presence, at times functioning as mere observer, at times as something more malevolent, as in The Spider;
Who tore the night?
Who caused this rupture?
Or just as notable in its absence, the human creates a ghostly un-inhabitation, the poignancy of loss and the passage of time signified by an empty lighthouse, while the lighthouse itself, like Stevens’ jar, renders the landscape around it into something workable;
Here is the lighthouse,
redundant these days,
From the keepers’
—the sea, of course
a metallic seam
closing the horizon.
Indeed, what better motifs to explore the tension, at times unbearable, between the encroaches mankind has made on the natural world and that same world unfettered, than the lighthouse, observing as it does that arch symbol of the sublime, the ocean. And there is the neglected garden, that small pocket of nature, Britain itself perhaps, bound and organized. And ultimately fruitless. Here we also find a beautifully wrought sense of time playing itself out across a cultural loss — redundancy is a potent word indeed, especially “these days”.
Deftly woven throughout these poems is the very idea of Jamie’s poetic undertaking, consciously so, acting as the prism between the worlds of nature and art. There is a constant exploration of form and content, from the early series of Tay Sonnets, through to sonnet-length poems later in the book, regular doses of ballad-like quartets and in a kind of linguistic crescendo that builds through the second half of the book, there are three poems, Tae the Fates, The Widden Burd and Hauf o’ Life crafted in rich Scottish dialect. Language becomes here the most human and powerful of tools.
This is a beautiful book, shunning both whimsy and sentimentality, because at its core are concerns that become more powerful than mere pastoral elegy. There is a real sense of human mortality here, of frailty and of loss. The poems ask questions of how we live amongst so much other life, of how we make art and of the forms we take; observer, gossip, violent destroyer, intellectual, worker, woman, man, mother and lover and they hold in perfect balance Jamie’s astute, unerring analysis of all this, of art, self and nature. Jamie could be describing her poetic self as she closes the first poem in the collection;
What a species —
still working the same
curved bay, all of us
hoping for the marvellous,
all hankering for a changed life.
The Overhaul is available from the Caught by the River shop priced £9.