Caught by the River

Weird Song – A review of The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie

Will Burns | 8th October 2015

Artwork: Olivia Lomenech Gill

The Bonniest Companie
by Kathleen Jamie
Picador Poetry, 64 pages. Out now.

Review by Will Burns

Just over a year ago I attended a wedding in Scotland. It was the August bank holiday and a matter of weeks before the Scottish independence referendum. The groom’s mother, I was told, would take a very dim view of anyone not born in Scotland wearing tartan to the wedding. She was also at pains to point out the house she and her husband owned in Cromarty, the village where the wedding was to be held, was very much where they ‘lived’ and under no circumstance was it to be called a ‘holiday home’. The house they owned in Cornwall was much more like that—a place they only visited. I saw she had a ‘No’ poster in the window of her house. After the wedding, I spent most of the evening talking to a Glaswegian man. He had no knowledge of his family history beyond a few generations, and had hired a Black Watch tartan for the weekend. Kilt, socks, sporran, sgian dubh, the lot.He told me he hadn’t lived in Scotland for nearly fifteen years. He lived in Hackney with his new-born son. He didn’t get to vote, but was holding court amusingly on how ‘Yes’ was the only way to do so. For my part, all these confused and muddled national identities were emblematic of my own thought at the time. I just couldn’t seem to settle on how I felt about the whole thing. I was being swayed by any cogent argument put forward. My instinctive feelings were with the ‘Yes’ voters, but when my landlord for example, old-fashioned North London Trotskyite that he is, argued that what the world needed now was fewer countries and more co-operation, I found that hard to disagree with.

Kathleen Jamie, energised by the feelings the impending vote was rousing, resolved to write a poem per week throughout 2014, charting the ebb and flow of the year. The result is this book, her seventh collection. Jamie was public about her own feelings during the referendum (I read her thoughts in the London Review of Books), about the build-up to polling, going to vote with her daughter, and the crushing disappointment of the next day (remember that black day in May of this year anyone?) and it is hard not to read these deft lyrical celebrations of the local as affirmations of an independent identity. But to suggest a lack of ambiguity here would be foolish—this book is far more complex than that. And the complexity, as one might expect from a poet of Jamie’s subtle power, begins and ends with the poems’ language.

The book begins with a sequence of poems sub-titled Merle, and here we are presented with the first problematic word of the collection. ‘Merle’ is a dialect word for the blackbird. But which dialect? It can be ascribed as the Scots dialect word for that species, but it is also the bird’s French name. There is an alternative Scots spelling of ‘Merl’. And the Scots dialect is a Germanic language, related to Northern Anglo-Saxon languages that pre-date the Norman conquest of the South, rather than to Scottish Gaelic, so where does that leave us? Nowhere, one might think, reading on through poems in English (but with a greater or lesser smattering of Scots dialect and Gaelic loan-words) and therefore everywhere.

Jamie’s ‘Bonniest Companie’ ends up being the natural phenomena that surround the somewhat mysterious and almost uniform, omni-present speaker of these poems, peopled as the landscape might be with domestic human concerns. Jamie is at her most tender out of doors, ‘… climbing the same/sour gorge the river fled, fall/by noiseless fall.’ or watching deer in a ‘waking dream’, ‘leap,/leap the new-raised/peat-dark burn.’ But there is always the sense of encroachment, even here. There are leaves ‘like spearheads’, and ‘desperate as refugees’, there are Red-Tailed Hawks pecking at plastic bags in Central Park, and there are terns screaming the words at the rocks. And the word is ‘change’.

It comes as no surprise to feel the notch of the domestic and the wild biting hard in what can feel like unforgiving environments—nowhere more so than in the poem Wings Over Scotland, a found poem (‘alas’, as Jamie asserts in her notes) which simply, starkly lists cases of raptor persecution, followed by the words ‘No prosecution.’, on a series of estates whose names cannot help but conjure a sense of financial and environmental mis-deeds in a very different Scotland—Whiskey, grouse, game, tweeds, the royal family on ‘holiday’.

This foreboding image is brilliantly and sharply drawn, standing out as it does against the preceding pattern of Clare-like dialect names, distinctly named species and accurate natural observation. As with Robert Macfarlane, in Jamie’s hands these lexicons become both tool and symbol of a specificity directly at odds with the tyranny of an increasingly homogenous globalism. For have no doubt, it is a specific ‘merle’ in Jamie’s poem—‘Thon’ divides speaker, bird and reader, defining the bird as a distinct and local individual and therefore more potent than any mere poetic symbol. There are three poems which begin on this very note—‘Thon blackbird…’, ‘Thon earthfast boulder…’, ‘Thon tree,/earthfast…’, as well as ‘That…’ ‘Those…’ and ‘Thae…’, all pointing from the speaker to the image, the ‘common and the mortal’ Jamie urges us to take our chances with in The Cliff.

These poems grow to relish and enforce with increased power their localism, their environment, their language, and rightly so, the feeling reaching a kind of fever pitch in the poem named for the date five days after the referendum and thick with both Scots dialect and (surely?) the poet’s supremely distilled, intense feelings about the result:

23/9/14 So here we are, dingit doon and weary, happed in tattered hopes (an honest poverty). Wir flags are wed awa

These poems present a world of attachments and divisions, domestic, social and environmental forces observing, protecting and exploiting one another in a landscape vividly and beautifully crafted throughout. They are poems of and for our time, a time in which we face ourselves and our surroundings, not always through a screen, but often as antagonists. They feel melancholy, and yet there are notes of hope. The title itself—could we not all become each other’s ‘Bonniest Companie’?

Late on the night of the wedding I stood outside alone for a while. The lights of the oil rigs in the firth shone in the darkness. I thought about the families of the bride and groom, about the tiny divisions I’d seen crack open over the past couple of days, the small and potentially ancient griefs. Though in truth no more than you might expect at any family gathering. I was drunk on good scotch. I still could not settle.

The Bonniest Companie is the Caught by the River book of the month. See previous posts

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