Maria Johnston on a collection with a devotional attentiveness to the modern world
"We're like an audience … standing in the deep cold, looking up, keeping silence, but it's not a show, it's more like watching fluidity of mind; an intellectualism … Not the performance of a finished work but a redrafting." This, from Kathleen Jamie's recent book, Sightlines, is her account of witnessing the northern lights from a ship in the Arctic, but it could also be read as a transcription of the poetic mind in action; the dance of Jamie's words enacts the mind in motion as it moves between the shifting, shimmering processes of nature and art. Jamie's captivating new collection hauls the reader on a strange, profound journey – the poetic equivalent of deep-sea diving at great pressure – throughout which we find ourselves more than usually alive to how language is as moving, as endlessly transformative, as the world we journey through by plane or boat.
Asked about the craft of writing, Jamie has replied that the "trick" is "to make it look easy. Like figure-skaters do." For me, this analogy deftly encapsulates the self-conscious artistry of The Overhaul, which foregrounds the figurative – similes and metaphors abound – as it probes and plays out the tensions inherent in translating human experience in an unintelligible universe into verbal figures of interlaced sight- and sound-lines. Jamie's figure-skating poetics calls to mind the precision-sailing of Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Windhover", the poem itself moving "as a skate's heel smooth on a bow-bend", or Robert Frost's proclamation that "like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting".
The Overhaul opens on "The Beach", a sonnet (that most enduring of poetic forms) as scene-setter for the poet's unending efforts:
still working the same
curved bay, all of us
hoping for the marvellous,
all hankering for a changed life.
Echoes of Seamus Heaney – who waited until "nearly fifty / To credit marvels" – remind us that The Overhaul, published in Jamie's 50th year, is a "mid-life book".
The "Five Tay Sonnets" explore the form's possibilities for rhythmic vigour, and many of the poems read as musical scores. One of the stand-out poems of Jamie's prize-winning collection The Tree House (2004) had bats
testing their idea
for a new form
which unfolded and cohered
before our eyes
and the form that the poem takes is a vital exploratory device. Michael Longley has paid tribute to the "feel of organic inevitability" of Jamie's poetry, and both poets share a devotional attentiveness to the natural world and the poem as organism. The "curvature of the Earth" (a phrase beloved of Jamie) finds its reflection in the supple curve and fluidity of these revolving shapes on the page and the air.
Thus, "Fragment 1" inquires of the "roe deer / breaking from a thicket":
how can you tell
what form I take?
What form I take
I scarcely know myself
adrift in a wood
in wintertime at dusk
Here, poetic form gives shape to a sense of self-estrangement as the speaker merges, through fluid syntactic ambiguity, with the deer and bodily outlines blur. Accordingly, as humans merge with the natural world throughout The Overhaul, the threat of self-dissolution is pervasive. That Jamie's formal preoccupation involves both art and self is powerfully dramatised in "Hawk and Shadow", a tour-de-force of theme and technique:
I watched a hawk
glide low across the hill,
her own dark shape
in her talons like a kill.
As the hawk's shadow outruns its body, the observing speaker's sense of self disintegrates as soul "part unhooked hawk, /part shadow on parole" dissociates from body. The lines' compulsive rhythmic stress-pulse amplifies the mounting panic, while their dark nursery-rhyme endings vibrate with disjunctive energy as boundaries dissolve to terrifying effect.
For Jamie, language is "where we're at home … our means of negotiating with the world", and throughout The Overhaul different ways of forming experience intersect. The theatricality of the non-human world is drawn out as Jamie's shape-shifting, metaphorical imagination startles the mind awake through unsettling convergences.
Thus, in "The Gather" the rural labourers play their bit-parts as in a nature documentary, "throwing us a grand wave" at poem's end; the bluebell in "An Avowal" is limited to the "small role life / offers you" while "The Galilean Moons" are like "coy new talents /awaiting their call on stage". Jamie rings the changes on words and world; the simile's "like" functioning as the hinge.
In similar fashion, the enlivening energies of translation make possible refreshing linguistic collisions with Friedrich Hölderlin's German reanimated in Scots to compelling sonic effect. In the final poem, "Materials", English and Scots harmonise in the concluding realisation that "a bit o' bruck's / … all we'll leave behind us when we're gone".
Through this dynamic, disturbing collection, Jamie illuminates the mysterious force of poetry in our lives as an unending shadow-play of art and nature, self and soul.