To see the universe in a grain of sand

In the smallest of landscapes, Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie finds the larger story.

By Joanie Mackowski
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Kathleen Jamie has worked her way up in a man’s world–Scottish poetry. While her poems do sound more lithe than the gruff lyrics of Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, or George Mackay Brown, her phrasings are nonetheless robust and often brusque–quite new to an ear accustomed to American poetry’s tendency to whisper to itself. Consider the emphatic clang and headlong momentum of “The Barrel Annunciation”:

I blame the pail
set under our blocked kitchen rhone
which I slopped across the yard

and hoisted to the butt’s
oaken rim seven
or nine times in that spring storm.

Included in Waterlight are domestic poems about being a wife and a mother, and references to laundry, cooking, etc.; yet the poems also insistently address history, culture, politics, and industry. Moreover, the poems travel–literally, to Canada, Budapest, the Himalayas, and figuratively, in their scope and sweep. So, this is not what one might call “women’s poetry,” nor could it be faulted as the work of some cerebral Athena. It’s smart, tough, healthy, clear-eyed, unapologetic–and exhilarating.

Waterlight, though, is a deceptively slim introduction to Kathleen Jamie’s ten books. And it’s also a bizarre form of introduction, as it begins with her repeatedly waving goodbye–as if she appears in the volume unwillingly or against her better judgment. The book opens with the most recent work, and this as a whole concerns itself with missed epiphanies. Repeatedly some half-hearted gesture of diverting, erasing, letting go, or losing track concludes the poems.

Consider, for example, the volume’s two poems titled “Rhododendrons,” one from The Tree House (2004), the other from Jizzen (1999). In the newer “Rhododendrons,” the speaker sees the flowering shrubs from a boat, apparently while crossing a loch:

It wasn’t sand martins
hunting insects in the updraught,
or the sudden scent of bog myrtle

that made me pause, lean
across the parapet,
but a handful of purple baubles
reflected below the water’s surface.

This is lovely–that it’s not the flowers themselves but their reflection “below” the water, and how this meets the sonic reflection of “purple baubles.” Next, however, the reflected rhododendron blossoms appear to the speaker “as comfortable and motionless / as a family in their living room // watching tv,” and with this image the poem’s energy begins to dissipate; the poem turns away from the flowers’ reflection and toward an association laden with passivity, banality, and boredom. Subsequently, when the poem continues–

What was it,
I’d have asked, to exist
so bright and fateless

while time coursed
through our every atom
over its bed of stones–?

–it’s not clear whether the speaker is addressing the flowers or the family watching tv. “I’d have asked,” she writes, not quite mustering the requisite effort or interest. And then she ends it, as if knocking over a half-built house of cards:

But darkness was weighing
the flowers and birds’ backs,
and already my friends had moved on.

The earlier “Rhododendrons,” however, does not abandon its insights on the brink. In four eight-line stanzas, it offers a history of rhododendrons in Scotland, simultaneously concretizing these flowering shrubs and working them as a metaphor for immigration and interculturation. Brought “under sail” from “a red-tinged east,” the flowers are

carried down gangplanks
in dockers’ arms. Innocent
and rare.
their blooms a hidden gargle
in their green throats.

Then, after the shrubs come “shuddering on trains” through towns, begins the “terribly gentle / work” of planting them:

the fertile
globe of the root-ball
undisturbed, Yunnan
or Himalayan earth
settled with them.

This poem is precise and expansive both, its “fertile / globe” echoing the entire volume’s wanderlust. It interleaves its subject with a consideration of exotic versus native, mute versus articulate, energizing the rhododendrons and the speaker. While the newer poem proposes oppositions–above versus below, natural versus technological, immediate versus removed (as beneath the surface of the water, or beyond the tv screen), it doesn’t develop them, and it doesn’t achieve the range or verve of the earlier one.

Or consider “Rooms,” a poem from Mr and Mrs Scotland Are Dead, the final section of Waterlight. The poem is so compressed I must quote the entirety:

Though I love this travelling life and yearn
like ships docked, I long
for rooms to open with my bare hands,
and there discover the wonderful, say
a ship’s prow rearing, and a ladder
of rope thrown down.
Though young, I’m weary:
I’m all rooms at present, all doors
fastened against me;
but once admitted start craving
and swell for a fine, listing ocean-going prow
no man in creation can build me.

This poem is short, but in the interpenetration of its images it becomes expansive. It’s an example, too, of how Jamie’s poems buck against typical gender categories. The speaker longs for settled “rooms” that contain the very soul of travel: “a ship’s prow rearing” and casting off its lines. Next, she herself is “all rooms” with “all doors / fastened against” her–so she’s locked in and out at once, an existence that’s both pure interiority and exiled. Then, once “admitted,” admitted through the door or admitted into consciousness, out of that inchoate interior state, she begins to “swell” and crave a ship–she becomes the sea. No man can build for her this ship she craves, and no man can build her. As the poem uncoils its mercurial yearnings, to wander, to settle, be unencumbered, admitted, understood, penetrated, independent–it deftly crafts Jamie’s situation as a Scottish woman writer assailing the current. This poem moves at breakneck speed, daring the reader to hang on.

Joanie Mackowski is the author of The Zoo (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002) and has work in Best American Poetry 2007.  She teaches with the Creative Writing Program at the University of Cincinnati.

© 2008 by Joanie Mackowski. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at


~ by ericedits on July 2, 2008.

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