Kathleen Jamie's spare verse is both in tune with nature and at home with itself
Kathleen Jamie's The Overhaul is easy to overlook (as I did when it came out towards the end of last year) because although attentive, it is in no way attention-seeking. This is its power and, although the least vainglorious poet imaginable, Jamie has been scooping up prizes (most recently the Costa award for this collection). Her poetry is to be admired as one might a winter garden for its outline, clarity and light. Her writing is spare: words work hard and are not encouraged to put on fancy dress or show off. Thrift is her strength and an effortlessness that cannot be achieved without effort. One feels that if it were possible to write poems without language, she would be content. What she is after is the unmediated – nothing, including words, must get in the way of what she sees.
Reading the collection is, on one level, the equivalent of taking a Scottish walk, observing birds, deer, sheep and the sea. She lives in Fife and this collection is, one assumes, a Fife littoral. Along the way there is many a Celtic word (some have to be got over like stiles): teind, teuchit, fank, bothy … and it occurs to me that her poems are themselves like bothies: shelters for their readers.
By Jamie's standards, Moon is one of the collection's more fanciful poems. But I love the image of the moon as an elegant traveller with a "small valise of darkness" – not to mention scholarly pretensions, considering the bookcase, encouraging the books to confess. It is Jamie herself who opens up in the end. And as moon and mother collide, there is something biblical about the "unto" in the last line that gives the confession a stiffness that insures against sentimentality.
These poems ask how the world accommodates us and Jamie puzzles over how animals, birds and people know their places. In a wonderful poem, Ospreys – part of a sonnet sequence – she marvels at their long-haul flight from Senegal to Scotland and wonders, as they return to last year's battered nests, whether it was worth it:
there'll be a few glad whispers round town today:
that's them, baith o' them, they're in.
The ordinary warmth of this is moving and characteristic.
She applies the same sympathy to the lives of flowers – skilfully avoiding whimsy. In Roses, she considers the brief life of a rose and competition from rival roses: "'I haggle for my little/ portion of happiness',/ says each flower, equal, in the scented mass." In Avowal, she makes a tender comedy of the bluebell's helpless acquiescence, answering all inquiries with an "undemurring yes!" In another excellent poem, she takes the part of a spider, describing it memorably as a "slub in the air's weave". Slub – the accidental knot in the yarn – was not a word I knew and now one I shall cherish.
Jamie has said this is a collection about midlife. If so, it does not describe a midlife crisis but registers the importance of stopping, midstream, to reflect. And she finds a cheering equivalent to the middle-aged person in The Overhaul, the title poem, as she considers a boat named the Lively, above the waterline, awaiting… an overhaul.
… but hey, Lively,
it's a time-of-life thing,
it's a waiting game –
This is advice – as these fine, unhurried poems show – she does not need to apply to herself.