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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
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.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent