‘How the world sustains’: Kathleen Jamie

I once made a mixtape for Kathleen Jamie. Two, in fact.

In my first year at University, Kathleen Jamie was the writer-in-residence. For the weekly writers’ group meetings, her and three students (I was one) decamped from her office on Dundee’s Nethergate to a nearby café or pub to rant about the Tory government of the time.

I’m not claiming to have known her well, but we had two things in common: we share a birthday1 and it turned out that she lived in the little Fife town I’d grown up in2. She’d published several volumes of poetry, a recent travel narrative (The Golden Peak) and was soon to be named among the New Generation Poets. My knowledge of Scottish literature was minuscule, and a four-year degree in literature did almost nothing to change that. But given that we had the choice of what periods or types of literature to study, that’s my own fault.

Towards the end of the session – the last of her two-year stint – Kathleen was returning to Pakistan and Afghanistan, places she’d also written a superb book of poems about called The Autonomous Region, with photographer Sean Mayne Smith. Intrigued by the music of Scottish dance act The Shamen (BBC Scotland had recently aired a programme about them), she asked if I could make her a tape for the journey. Always a proselytiser for music I love, happy to oblige.

(I don’t remember what I taped, probably a ‘best of’ drawn from the psychedelic 60’s tinged Drop, the beatbox agit-pop of In Gorbachev We Trust, the home-made acid mini-album Phorward, and the glossy, fully-fledged dancefloor breakthrough En-Tact. What I’m getting at, and what you’re wondering is that no, I didn’t give her Ebeneezer Goode.)

The second tape was a mix of the contemporary club music I was into: probably the likes of Orbital, The Drum Club and Guerilla Records artists such as Spooky. Maybe even some early Aphex Twin and what was then called “progressive house” and later morphed into trance. I gave her the tapes and in return she gave me a copy of her debut collection Black Spiders, a copy of which I saw recently in a second-hand shop for £50. I’m not selling mine.


Although Jamie is probably better known now for her essays of “nature writing”³, looking back through her poetry it’s interesting to see the development of her engagement with – or perhaps a sharpening of focus on – the natural world.

From the mid 80s Jamie writes of the natural world and man’s involvement with it. Take ‘Clearances’:

‘The wind sucks clouds. In the indrawn breath

grass bends and nods, like Mandarins.

The sun hunches, and begins to set no sooner

than it’s risen. This

depopulated place! Where moorland birds

repeat a sound, like copper, beaten’

This is a landscape depopulated by force, as part of the brutal Highland Clearances. No people live here now, and those echoes of lost smithies come from birds and not man. The sequence Karakoram Highway shares this sense:

‘At the sharp end of the gorge;

the bridge. Like a single written word

on vast and crumpled parchment. Bridge.

The statement of man in landscape’

One of the highlights of The Way We Live is ‘Orkney haiku’

Waves wash in, out, in

menhirs incline to each other:

farmers grumbling.

This has, in twelve words, each of the three key Jamie concerns: the elements of the natural world in themselves; our actions and imprints upon that world and, finally, down-to-earth observations on how we live (though yes, the “farmers grumbling” are merely suggested by the angle of the standing stones).

This engagement with nature deepens in The Queen of Sheba. ‘Fountain’ evokes the primal gods to whom we unwittingly pray as we toss coins into a shopping centre fountain, surrounded by polythene bags with “Athena, Argos, Olympus”:

‘who says…

we don’t still feel

as it were, the dowser’s twitch

up through the handle of the buggy’

By 1999’s Jizzen (a Scots word for childbed), she was a mother of two. Unsurprisingly, her horizon contracts dramatically and much of the collection is devoted to thoughts of new life. The beautiful sequence Ultrasound is the highlight. 2004’s Forward Prize-winning The Tree House marks a further shift: almost every poem is inspired by contact with the natural world, or reflects on our relationship with it. Perhaps, responsible for two new lives, the poet feels more keenly now the damage our species is doing to its environment.

Her 2012 collection The Overhaul disappointed me on first reading, for reasons I couldn’t specify. Re-reading now, it reveals a concern not only with nature but of landscapes and time: of things buried and dug up, of deep things and remnants. There is doubt here, too: the moon “unnerve[s] me”, and the passing of a hawk and its shadow leave “hill and sky…empty / and I was afraid”. Maybe I was too young, too unconcerned with mortality and with what landscapes can reveal, the first time I read these poems.

‘The Spider’ chides a horrified human observer:

‘You, staring in horror

 – had you never considered

how the world sustains?

The ants by day

clearing, clearing,

the spiders mending endlessly-‘

There’s always an earthiness in Jamie’s poetry: there will be the specifics of bodies and their functions: “I squeeze from my own gut / the one material”. Nature for her (as I quoted Philip Hoare writing about her in my article on Derek Jarman) is not “all primroses and otters”: it’s viruses and mutating cells, too.

The landscapes she observes can be shorelines, islands or hills, but almost always they are inhabited or show signs of past habitation. There are, for Jamie, no wildernesses: mankind’s footprint is everywhere. The shorelines will be strewn with blue plastic ropes, and that makes its way into the poem. The landscapes can be cities, too, or the village in which she lives: nature is everywhere. As she writes in “Peregrines, Ospreys, Cranes” in Findings, “Between the laundry and fetching the kids from school, that’s how birds enter my life.” For all that her work engages with nature, there is no romanticising it.

2014’s The Bonniest Companie is the work of a writer entering middle age. Jamie’s aim for that year – potentially such a monumental one for Scotland – was to write a poem a week. Towards the end of the collection comes the stunning, Blakean ‘The Tradition’, which perhaps sums up where the poet finds herself now. Her adult life has been spent seeking ways to ‘unfetter’ herself from the past, but

‘older now, I know nor fee

Nor anvil breaks those chains

And the wild ways we think we walk

Just bring us here again.’

As we age, and we adopt the roles once taken by our own elders, so we edge closer to the past. Unsurprisingly, then, thoughts in these poems also turn to childhood, in works such as ‘The Stair’, ‘The Girls’ and ‘The Missing’: detailed moments from decades ago that her earlier works did not explore. Thoughts turn to mortality:

‘when my hour comes,

let me go like the shrew

right here on the path:

spindrift on the midget fur, caught mid-thought, mid-dash’

The poem (‘The Shrew’) ends there, aptly omitting the closing full stop. Time is passing, and the years ahead may no longer outnumber the years already lived. ‘Solstice I’ laments ‘Then it’s over / midsummer: one fewer of our portion, one less left in the jar’.


‘but gin ah could mak whit’s halie

an maist dear tae me – ane perfect poem

…Ah’d hae lived,

aince, like the gods; and aince is eneuch’

(from ‘Tae The Fates’ in The Overhaul)



1 With Daphne du Maurier, too

2 Which I’ve written about here and here

³ September sees the publication of her third book of essays, Surfacing.



Jamie, Kathleen: Black Spiders (Salamander, 1982)

Jamie, Kathleen: The Way We Live (Bloodaxe, 1987)

Jamie, Kathleen: The Queen of Sheba (Bloodaxe, 1994)

Jamie, Kathleen: Jizzen (Picador, 1999)

Jamie, Kathleen: The Tree House (Picador, 2004)

Jamie, Kathleen: The Overhaul (Picador, 2012)

Jamie, Kathleen: The Bonniest Companie (Picador, 2014)


Image credit: National Portrait Gallery



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