Kathleen Jamie, The Bonniest Companie (Pan Macmillan 2016)
This book was a Christmas present from a friend who may have thought of me when she read that the book resulted from Kathleen Jamie’s project of writing a poem every week in 2014. I had a similar project, maybe even that same year.
My resulting rhymes went up on the fridge for a time and then mostly were seen no more, for which the world should be glad. Conversely, the world can be glad that Kathleen Jamie’s results are collected here – though there are slightly fewer than 52, so maybe, unlikely as it seems, there were a couple of duds.
Kathleen Jamie is a Scottish poet. You can read her Wikipedia entry here, and a 2012 article by Sarah Crown in the Guardian here. 2014 was the year of the Scottish independence referendum, and at least one of these poems refers to that explicitly. All the poems have to do with Scotland one way or another: the language moves back and forth between standard English and Scottish; the wild creatures and landscape are always present. But I’ll stick to my policy of picking just one poem:
I love the sound of this, as of these poems in general. In its sense, I recognise that experience of something remembered from childhood looming large in your mind in the present moment, with a new question about it. Here the speaker asks what kind of tree, as in what species, but she conjures up childhood memories that are full of a different kind of kind: tree as boundary, as relic, as something damaged, as a place for scary stories, magic and lore, as something not completely separate from herself (‘your sap in me’).
The bits of Scottish language – ‘yon’, ‘wee’, ‘gloaming’, ‘bour’ – link the adult speaker back to her childhood language. At least that’s how it reads to me: I imagine the speaker has had a more emphatic version of my experience of losing the accent and linguistic tics of my North Queensland childhood as I was educated into standard Australian in southern climes.
Anyhow, the last line performs a nice twist. The expected question is something like, ‘why this charged memory comes back so vividly after years of not being thought about’. But childhood memories just do that when one is of a certain age, and really to ask why would be futile. But the poem opens with a different question, and the last line brings us back to it: why do I ‘suddenly care’ about the kind of tree? Why does the mind, having gone back to a childhood experience, ask a question that was of no interest during all the years of the experience (‘from infancy to the gloaming of the teens’)? The tone is ambiguous: it could be like, ‘Why should I care about such an irrelevancy?’ or ‘What strange ways of the mind have made this interesting after all this time?’ Or, actually, both.
The title, ‘World Tree’, suggests a generalisation from the experience, that the poem is about the difference between a child’s immersive relationship to the world, and an adult’s more analytic one. The resonances then run deep.
But I’m out of time. It’s a terrific book.
Immediately takes me back to some long summers – in part in Scotland – back 30 and less years ago – to the land of my Scottish grand-mother – of my cousins – of a distinctive kind of weather and landscape and feeling out-of-time – in the way that one does – far removed from the usual and familiar – but at the same time in another familiar place made so by a twisted education system back then here in Australia and about which Shirley HAZZARD wrote so well in The Transit of Venus – making real the hemispherical opposite – seasons topsy-turvy – and a landscape quite at variance with the eucalyptus and parched summers of much of southern Australia. I keep in mind, Jonathan, that yours was a far northern Aussie tablelands’ setting – making it even more complicated. But I remember my grand-mother’s accent – still! And my own given names remind me every day of that important line of heritage: James Stewart…how could they not! I shall forward this blog entry to my cousin Sandra in The Borders village of Newcastleton. I am sure she’ll relish your words! As I miss that place – her – and the family history resonance – Ettleton and Castleton cemeteries!
Hi Jim. You’ve reminded me that our closest neighbour to my childhood home was ‘oldMrs Park’ who had kept her native Scottish accent and had a garden full of thriving roses in the North Queensland heat.
And as well – that much respected former Tamworth MLA (and WWII veteran/hero) Noel PARK – was a distantly connected kinsman. His widow until about two/three years ago was a neighbour to my brother. In the meantime, Jonathan – I have just sent off a note to Kathleen JAMIE (at Stirling U) – I’d forwarded your review/my response to cousin Sandra in Newcastleton in The Scottish Borders. Who had been having her own reflective mind-wanderings back to her childhood days – not a tree – rather a wood for play…and wanted to write something for the village Newsletter (The Copshaw Clatter) – including the Kathleen JAMIE poem. Thanks again!