The understated wonder in Kathleen Jamie's U.S. debut, Waterlight, is a surprise that sneaks up on the reader. Jamie has been writing for more than twenty years and has been called "the leading Scottish poet of her generation" (The Sunday London Times). The poems in this collection are sparse and layered with sound and narrative, littered with questions involving both the personal self and the world around the self. The natural world has as much to do with these poems as do the images and moments the poems give praise to. There is "light" in many of her poems and though the tunnel may be acknowledge, the light always peeks through.
Jamie's poems are able to bring new perspectives to familiar images; she has an eye for the small things in the world, the things others may not see. In poems such as "Rhododendrons," the speaker of each poem is on a path of discovery, both personal and more specific. In this poem, she writes:
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
as comfortable and motionless
as a family in their living room.
watching TV. 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 - ?
But darkness was weighing
the flowers and birds' backs,
and already my friends had moved on.
Here, the rhododendrons that are below the surface, tucked away next to stone. The poem asks us to think of all of the things we do not see and all of the things we move past without thought, just like the speaker's friends at the end of the poem. Jamie's poems are as much about discovery as they are about the images that make us take pause. Her perspective is framed by each poem's attention to sound. Many of the end words echo to one another, such as in the second stanza's "parapet" and "purple baubles." The attention to sound and the slow pacing offered up by her short lines results in work that is as much meditative as it is focused.
Her poems are steeped in tradition. Not only is rhyme common place, but Jamie also uses a Scots dialect for many of her poems; this decision offers a new layer or context to the individual pieces as well as to other poems in the collection. Jamie's heritage is all around her and these poems offer shed light on a new perspective and a new way of layering sound.
Jamie's feminist sensibilities shine through in such poems as "Pioneers." Here, history again makes an appearance, but not without criticism. She writes:
their remains now strewn
across the small-town
museums of Ontario:
the axe and the grindstone,
the wife by the cabin door
dead, and another send for.
Here, we again see her shed light on what has not been seen or spoken of before. The pioneers become the women unseen, dead and standing by the cabin door.
This collection will sneak up on you. I devoured it hungrily, eagerly experiencing each discovery, each unveiling. Jamie's perspective is understated and her ear is tuned to the world's images and songs; she layers each piece with words that sing to one another, that serve as echoes, linking ideas and images. Once finished with this collection, this reader was propelled to begin again: taking in each line's lyricism, each line's thought and making my way through Jamie's complex tapestry of image, politics and sound.