The Sunday Poem No 23: Kathleen Jamie

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 23: Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie shot to fame with her prize-winning third collection The Queen of Sheba, whose precisely observed, funny, mysterious, imaginative, generous poems (in exuberant language, both Standard English and Scottish dialect), tackled landscape, nationhood, politics, sex, poverty and hope, with Scottish history and economy, and a chorus of Scottish voices, in the background. "Mr and Mrs Scotland, here is the hand you were dealt", says one poem, sifting knitting patterns, old photos and old fridges on the "civic amenity landfill site". Three collections, plus a travel book inspired by Tibet.

This is the last poem of its book. It projects a feeling of bereftness on to an evening scene where high- flying geese leave a sound on the wind, a mark on the sky. But who or what is bereft, and why? The first two stanzas set up a soft nasal moan that runs through the poem like wind towards the last word bereft: skein, gong, born, lowin, stane, sown, blin, ca'ing. Against harder sounds (twists, script, gate), this moan dies away in the central stanza, present only in the whole poem's central line, sign tae the wind. But it comes back in strewn aroun, skeins, hame, dumb moan, soun. It is the vowel sound of bereftness; backed up by the softest consonant of all (contained in some of those words) which also blows through the poem: the w of word, wis, lowin, sown, word, wire, wind, word, whustles, awa, we'll ken, connect wi, whit and finally, aptly, wind. That word bereft is prepared for by deef (deaf, in English) and death.

The Latin word omen was a sign in augury which means reading destiny in birds' flight and calls. The vowels and consonants, in this poem about omens, are signs we decipher to read its meanings. Barbed wire is archaic script, signing to the wind; the sky word is a gong afore I wis born (like an ancient sign at a birth). But we are really talking the impossibility of divination. The poet, blin tae a' but geese ca'ing, never reads the word they write. It is not spoken or read: it is over our heads, ower high for ma senses.

Deciphering the sky's pattern and sound is an ancient art - but an impossible one. At the end of The Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo talks of the music of spheres: "Look, Jessica, the floor of heaven/Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold." The stars sing, yet "Such harmony is in immortal souls/But while this muddy vesture of decay/Doth grossly close us in, we cannot hear it". Jamie's poem is about not reading stars, gongs at birth, sky above us like an alternative field full of lowing cattle, or scripts that lie around in the world and would tell the future if we could read them. What we know is different (No lik). We may live surrounded by omens, but what they say is ower high for ma senses. Awa. Instead, history, death and love connect us, through our senses. Whatever reason the poet has for feeling empty as stane, ploo'd but not sown, she is still rooted in human connection. What we ken and connect wi forever is a lover: in a human forever. It is not us but the heavenly world, with its illegible words, that goes awa.

Like a curtain, heavenly meanings have a hem, a bottom line that drags across the sky as they leave (in a line longer than normal, which lengthens its syllables in an -ag sound, foreign to the rest of the poem). You can have skeins of fabric and fate, as well as geese, and this sky suddenly becomes an alternative fabric (as in Yeats's image, "Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths ... Of night and light and the half-light"). Human cloth is different from all that ominousness. We can't hear the harmony of spheres or read what birds write on the dusk. It is indecipherable, niver spoken or read in any language we've met in this language-conscious book: not in Scottish poems with their different-from-English vowels (niver for never, whustles for whistles), nor in English-voice poems. Skeins of fate turn from us to their own hame, wherever that is. What is left is a soun on the wind's moan. The other world may print the wind with unreadable (though maybe human) signs, but in the end we have to treat it as deef and dumb. Plus we can do a spot of signing ourselves. Just as the barbed wire makes a sign tae the wind, the poem is a sign to the unearthly world that, blind as we are in front of its strangeness ("closed in" by this "muddy vesture of decay", as Lorenzo puts it), we are OK without understanding what it says. Poetry gestures to hidden mysterious things, but takes root in the human world: our lovers, our past, our senses. This connectedness is our territory, our land. It is the other world - of destiny and hidden meanings - that sounds bereft.

As a sign-off for a major collection full of dialogue, graffiti, contemporary Scottish lives, and wild imaginative tie-ups between (for example) the Dalai Lama and the island of Skye, this is a wonderfully emptying ending. It is poetry announcing its belief in this world, letting everything else ride away where it will, on the wind. We'll never know our future, nor all the meanings of the world around us, just as we never know all the meanings of a poem. And that's OK. We can live without understanding everything. We have to.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

`Skeins o Geese' appears in The Queen of Sheba, Bloodaxe

Skeins o Geese

Skeins o geese write a word

across the sky. A word

struck lik a gong

afore I wis born.

The sky moves like cattle, lowin.

I'm as empty as stane, as fields

ploo'd but not sown, naked

as blin as a stane. Blin

tae the word, blin

tae a' soon but geese ca'ing.

Wire twists lik archaic script

roon a gate. The barbs

sign tae the wind as though

it was deef. The word whustles

ower high for ma senses. Awa.

No lik the past which lies

strewn aroun. Nor sudden death.

No lik a lover we'll ken

an connect wi forever.

The hem of its goin drags across the sky.

Whit dae birds write on the dusk?

A word niver spoken or read.

The skeins turn hame,

on the wind's dumb moan, a soun,

maybe human, bereft.

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
    Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

    The end of an era across the continent

    It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
    Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

    'Focus on killing American people'

    Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
    Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

    Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

    The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
    Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

    Same-sex marriage

    As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
    The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

    The Mafia is going freelance

    Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable