In a previous post I looked at the increasing importance of, and focus on, the natural world in Kathleen Jamie’s poetry throughout her career. With hindsight, the two essay collections she has written – 2012’s Sightlines and it’s 2006 predecessor, Findings (surely one of the finest books of the century so far) – seem to be a logical progression.
Now comes Surfacing. Unlike the previous books, Sort Of Books have honoured this with a hardback format that’ll almost fit into a pocket¹. Jamie’s prose is, as ever, a thing of simple joy: each word is perfectly chosen, as you’d expect from a poet of her calibre.
Sightlines had a greater interest in “the north” – whaling, Scandinavia, cold lands and waters – than Findings – which for me made it a less balanced collection. But, in the light of Surfacing, it becomes clear that Jamie was working towards something, as if nagging away at an itch. “The past” has become a concern, but not the dewy-eyed age of myth which acts as a totem to those nostalgic for a golden age that never happened. She’s trying to make connections to how real people lived, and regain what may have been lost in terms of how we relate to our environment and the culture which grew out of it.
“When John told a story or an anecdote, or fetched something out of his memory, I had to listen closely…often I was unsure whether the event happened to him, or his grandfather, or someone else entirely. I don’t know whether it matters”
“Surfacing” implies a coming to light, a transition between states, mining (her great-grandfather was of West of Scotland coal-mining stock) or even an ending. It’s the perfect title for a collection whose concerns are the archaeological discoveries in thawing Alaskan permafrost, and in threatened Orcadian dunelands. The pieces in question (“In Quinhagak” and “Links of Noltland”) are the longest in any of her collections and are the twin poles around which the other – far shorter, but no less affecting – essays circle.
“In Quinhagak” tells of a summer spent in Alaska among the Yup’ik where a dig is revealing artefacts from a past that pre-dates the arrival of white men. Jamie lets us hear the Yup’ik voices as they re-establish connections – worn almost to nothing by time and the shallow attractions of western culture – with their ancestry:
“the dig was revitalising traditional skills which had been lost, that local people were so interested in the rediscovered artefacts that they were making replicas, and that means relearning old techniques…it wasn’t a treasure hunt; it was rebuilding a whole culture lost to colonialism, to missionary zeal”
The Alaskan landscape is awesome in scale, but the thawing of the permafrost is affecting the rhythm of life. There are weird compensations: it makes it easier to dig deeper for a start, and this means more than just physical objects are released: “The air is so clean and sharp, you can smell seal-meat from five hundred years ago”.
The dig is welcomed by the locals; memories are stirred and old traditions on the verge of disappearance have the potential to be reawakened:
“If one loses one’s world, one loses one’s language. The world of things, of making, of the land and animals and the stories and the hands’ work”
In Orkney, the gap in time is too vast. We know nothing of the language used by the Neolithic settlers. But the archaeologists can trace thought processes in the way the houses they are excavating sit in relation to each other; can deduce that someone sat on a wall, thousands of years ago, napping a flint. All these things make the people more real, and knit together different epochs within the same physical space.
“On this bright day, from this hillside you could see forever, overlooking the settlement on the Links below…you had line of sight to the little house called Knap of Howat, reckoned the oldest standing house in Northern Europe. You would command miles, being dead, and the living could glance up at you from their fields, feel your presence, your authority, legitimising their place on the land.”
In another piece (“The Inevitable Pagoda”) the abundance of pottery shards gleaned from a freshly-ploughed field threatens to overwhelm her:
“all the stories, all the voices, the dead…
You look out over the new-ploughed acres as over human history, and the next field too, and the next, and all the fields…
The final pair of essays – both just a few pages long – are almost heartbreakingly personal, and lend what seems to be an air of finality to this collection. I hope it isn’t to be Jamie’s last, although the piece she wrote recently for Little Toller’s online journal The Clearing suggests otherwise. Here, Jamie is urging all of us to – it sounds so simple – pay attention. With discipline and practice we could all develop a poet’s eye (if not a poet’s tongue). It’s as if she’s passing the baton to us all, for us to look for ourselves at the amazing world we pass through, and to take responsibility for it. Can we take up the challenge? As she asks at the end of “Wind Horse”, a deep memory-dive to her Tibetan journey of 1989, “do you understand?”
It’s clear now that “nature writing” is far too restrictive – not to mention twee – a term for what Jamie and a select few others are doing. Maybe a language somewhere – threatened, dormant, or living – has a fitting word. But for now, “sublime” will do.
¹ It looks gorgeous but I was surprised to find it occupying only a modest position in both Edinburgh Blackwells (where I bought my copy) and the Sauchiehall Street Waterstones. Perhaps like the previous books it’s not a work that shouts from the rooftops but is to be passed between family and friends (I bought several copies of Findings to give away). I know the publishers maybe can’t compete for display space with bigger rivals, but such a moving, beautiful collection of essays deserves a far higher profile in two of Scotland’s largest bookshops.