Kathleen Jamie The Bonniest Companie (Picador Poetry, 2015), launched on 29th October 2015 at Out of the Blue in Edinburgh
By Naomi Richards
2014 was the year Kathleen Jamie, inspired by the energy of a nation, set herself the task of writing one poem a week. Subtly drawing on political events and a visionary connection with her native Scotland, Jamie has produced an outstanding collection, The Bonniest Companie. Her poems take us on a walk through the seasons, with an intense focus on the natural world. As Jamie mentioned in an interview with Sarah Crown when discussing landownership in Scotland:
[…] I feel I might be striking a tiny blow: by getting out into these places, and developing a language and a way of seeing which is not theirs but ours.
The result is forty-seven beguiling short poems that dip in and out of the Scottish tongue. The tone may be down-to earth, but there is a precise beauty in the sentences and an intense focus. Jamie finds language the human way of “negotiating with the world” whether it is in encounters with queenly hinds, the muteness of a standing stone at a bothy door or “all the sky’s silences, its dialects” (in ‘The View’). These are images that move readily into the mind – realistic and transcendent. There is compassion throughout and yet an unidealised view of the relationship between humans and the natural world. In the collection, Jamie weaves in a sense of magic, mystery and longing: “Be brave,” she tells us, “by the weird-song in the dark you’ll find your way” (in ‘The Storm’).
The book was launched in a former military drill hall in Edinburgh, now an arts centre known as Out of the Blue. A part of the hall had been sectioned off to provide a small and intimate space. Rows of tightly packed red backed metal chairs cover the room. Jamie perches on the right hand front row: a modest figure gently cleaning her reading glasses and consulting her small black notebook. Don Paterson, the poetry editor at Picador, provides the curtain-raiser, pointing out what an extraordinary accomplishment it is to write so many poems of such quality over such a short space of time. He praises the poems’ delicacy and then jokes that Jamie ought to be put in poetry jail, in order to write even more.
Dressed in a heather shade of purple, Jamie takes to the small stage. There is a natural warmth about her, which is reflected in her poetry. Standing up she says, “I feel a bag of nerves,” and yet the room is filled with family and friends – Jamie says she knows about one third of the audience. As a further curtain-raiser, writer Kevin Williamson offers a memorable rendition of Louis MacNeice’s poem ‘Bagpipe Music’. It is a poem that screams about cultural decline: in a voice that picks up the ghoulishness of nightmares, in lines reflecting the discordant sounds of bagpipes. The poem begins:
It’s no go the merry-go-round, it’s no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
Their knickers are made of crepe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with head of bison.
Written in 1937 during MacNeice’s trip to the Western Isles, it is chillingly up to date, protesting against traditional ways of life being replaced by consumer sex and horror in the city. Jamie is a perfect antidote to this, with a calm everyday voice, with words not about urban excesses, but about the collision and coexistence of the city and the countryside. According to Sarah Crown, in Jamie’s writing, “nature resides in the cracks and crevices of daily life.” There is also a strong sense of the poet moving through landscape and lore in The Bonniest Companie.
The supernatural is never far away in this collection: Jamie explains how the title of the collection had “come in a flash,” based on the medieval Scottish ballad Tam Lin. In this early example of girl power, a handsome young man is rescued by his true love from the Queen of the Fairies. On the eve of Samhain, the ballad recalls a night of shape-shifting and high magic where Tam Lin is saved and the furious Fairy Queen says:
[…] she’s taen awa the bonniest knight
In a’ my companie.
From these lines, Jamie tells us, the title of the collection shapeshifted. But there is more magic – when Jamie says everyone present tonight also represents for her “the bonniest companie,” making the audience present in her work.
Jamie starts the reading in a soft voice with ‘Glacial.’ Shifting into the past, “the deep past,” as she referred to it in the interview for the Scottish Review of Books, we have the “cairn of old stones” and the same river that the Romans saw thousands of years ago. The Romans were chased away by the “grim north,” by the hostile beauty of the natural world – too many mountains, too much snow – and the poet has time to “bide a moment.” Her attention focuses on the whin-bush, though there is nothing sentimental in Jamie’s attitude to nature: it is just “what-ever whin-bush is flowering today.” The whin-bush, also known as gorse or furze, is rich in sacred associations. It is connected with fertility and time, to the dark mother Goddess reborn every All Hallows’ Eve, who brings in winter with the tap of her magical staff. The plant’s bright yellow flowers are also linked to the Celtic sun God, Lugh. This, then, is not just a whin-bush; it is an almost lost history of Celtic lore. From this perspective, the poet can see for miles, not unlike the woman who carries spring on her back in ‘Old Women.’ The poet can imagine the return of native predators such as the lynx and the wolf. Again, Jamie blends the ancient and the modern, as these frequently mythologized creatures are also at the centre of a recent debate about the re-introduction of such extinct native species to Scotland.
In the second poem Jamie reads, she mentions that this collection also charts her own year and an invitation to New York. There, she fitted in a spot of bird watching in Central Park and the experience became the next poem, ‘Wings over New York.’ In this poem, the speaker encounters a red-tailed hawk pecking at a polythene bag. This is a bird of the open country, yet engulfed in plastic. Somehow, it majestically frees itself in “three strong wingbeats.” ‘Wings over New York’ is perhaps reminiscent of an earlier poem in the collection, ‘Deliverance’, where the mind of the speaker seems trapped in a lobster creel, waiting for the fisherman’s hands to reach out and free it. In the year of the referendum, these could be interpreted as political poems that suggest the strength needed for an Independent Scotland. However, what the poems do best is fuse the old and contemporary world in startling images, such as the starling in Central Park sounding like a NYPD siren – the disorder in the streets and the wildness in the trees integrated in the brittle voice of the starling sending out its own alarm.
There is little break between the poems and I try to capture my breath knowing that another gorgeous poem is going to be released. ‘Blossom’ is a poem of quiet questioning. It reminds me of Annie Dillard going out into nature: “scrying the signs,” wondering about the cycle of life and death and pondering that: “Beauty itself is the language to which we have no key.” In ‘Blossom,’ we can recognize ourselves in the poet’s “dithering” around cosmic questions, while the blossoms just continue to be. In beautiful concrete poetry, the speaker weighs up the scales of justice and the value of a human life and admits:
I shall be weighed in the balance
and found wanting
I shall reckon for less
than an apple pip.
Jamie pauses only briefly before reading the next poem, ‘Hinds’. Here is nature going about its business, reminiscent of Ted Hughes. But here, too, magic is suggested: the speaker is “walking in a waking dream” when a group of deer turn round and stare with a “queenly air,” as if to say “Aren’t we the bonniest companie?” It is Tam Lin again and the elfin-like seduction, familiar from the folk-tales that Yeats drew on for much of his work. This stealing away of the mortal to the otherworld is part blessing, part curse – as Jamie says in the final line of the poem: “You’ll be happy, but never go home.”
But even where and what is home is questioned in a poem such as ‘Corporation Road 11,’ a poem about Jamie’s childhood. Here, the poet is a girl on a swing, slipping through to something else. As she pushes higher, the Earth says: “Come back/ I have your shadow.” Like the shadow of Peter Pan – created by another Scot – the shadow of the girl could be read as many things, most probably it is something that binds her to the earth.
The reading ends with ‘Autumn,’ with “leaves scuttering down Easter Road,” “desperate as refugees.” Similar in some ways to the themes of the Louis MacNeice poem that started the evening, there is the corner shop, “convenient for milk and pornography.” Even the leaves are “shy and dirty,” lost between pizza delivery leaflets. Yet there is some momentum here, blowing the leaves along, past “the Chinese nail bar” and the tattoo shop, and the poet focuses our attention on this in one startling question: “Whither the leaves?” As the clapping starts, the mystery of the natural world so enthrallingly rendered by Jamie opens out to perhaps ask: what direction are we, as children of the Earth, going?
 Francis James Child (ed.), ‘Child ballad #39A’, in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1882-1898.
 Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper Perennial, 1998)