A Life Less Ordinary
Kathleen Jamie is a rare talent. She has travelled widely, Tibet, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and in a scared world drawn in upon itself, written compassionately about the people she has met. She is one of Scotland's foremost contemporary poets whose poems explore the profundity of the everyday. She draws connections not from the insignificant to the profound, but sees within the ordinary the essential. Reading her is a delight. Her writing suggests that you could leave your children with her for the day knowing that they would not only be safe, but would probably be eager to visit again. She has no need for the bile and withering sarcasm of the alpha males of the literary world. You won't have to wipe spittle of your chin while staring into the angry eyes of a Will Self, or watch your back while an Amis is around.
Her latest book `Findings' is a series of essays, a gentle ramble around her homeland. Although domestic and whimsical, delighting in random insignificant details such as a plastic doll's head on a Hebridean beach, in her quiet way she explores the significance of the mundane, charting the drama and complexity of ordinary life.
She is evidently a restless soul finding reasons to travel. The places she chooses are usually on the margins of modern society; highland sheilings, deserted Hebridean Islands, Maes Howe in Orkney or watching corncrakes on Coll. But these are not places to hide from the horrors of the modern world but rather vantages points providing a descant to its muzak. In the eponymous essay `Findings' in the chance company of BBC sound recordists she visits the Monarch Islands admitting that she has never heard off them before. Tim and Martin are keen to record bird song. Jamie trawls through the debris on the beach, traffic bollards, shampoo and milk cartons, odd trainers and a dead whale. She collects two bleached sticks, a gannet's beak and a whale vertebrae, memorials to the natural world. She then notes her regret at not adding the plastic dolls head to her collection and points out that New Zealand has plastic beaches `100,000 grains to the square metre' and that an otter has been found in the Hebrides garrotted by plastic tape. This is not escapism rather viewing the modern world from a novel perspective.
The shepherd has a quad bike rather than collies.
We can live with fly blown Glasgow high rise tenements knee deep in rubbish but that the detritus of modern life washes up on a remote Hebridean beach seems shocking. Kathleen Jamie's genius is to leave us asking why.
The opening essay is a remarkable reflection on darkness and light. She makes the case for the dark:
`Pity the dark: we're so concerned to overcome and banish it, its crammed full of all that's devilish, like some grim cupboard under the stairs.'
She wants to see the dark as a natural phenomena:
`to enter into the dark for the love of its texture and wild intimacy'.
She notes that the old metaphor is wearing out. She goes to Orkney and visits Maes Howe the Neolithic chamber built to celebrate the turn of the year and the beginning of the end of winter's dark. She finds it full of surveyors from Historic Scotland with computerise laser scanning and pulse radar equipment. Her guide tells her `We're on the web you know. Live. Don't go picking your nose.'
The essays also deal with the mundane and the macabre; family illness and a visit to the `Surgeons Hall' in Edinburgh. No single event is allowed to remain on its own but is thrown into relief , a perspective privileged from a different place. The practicalities of her `Nana's' move into a nursing home is balanced with a trip to Lewis where she ponders the mystery of an ancient building on a stack and observes a deer cull. The various, apparently random elements of each essay are pulled together with the poet's craft, each reflecting on the other.
She embodies the spirit of the Romantics: `On man on Nature and on Human life musing in solitude.' Everything derives from and leads back to nature and the continuity of human experience.
Hers is a gentle touch and an original profundity deepening our understanding of the world by the connections her poetic imagination makes.