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
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
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.