Of Form and Language
‘The Bonniest Companie’ by Kathleen Jamie, ‘40 Sonnets’ by Don Paterson and ‘The Blind Roadmaker’ by Ian Duhig
Review by Mike Barlow
Kathleen Jamie says she decided to write a poem a week for the year 2014. The 48 poems in The Bonniest Companie are the result (the other 4 presumably culled in the editing), arranged in sections according to the seasons. Her relationship to the natural world, interwoven with recollections from childhood, blends the immediate with the reflective. The back cover blurb implies a social and political agenda, and indeed one or two poems comment on matters in the public domain. ‘23/9/14’ deals with the aftermath of the Scottish referendum (‘dingit doon and weary’), while the found poem ‘Wings over Scotland’ is a stark listing of birds of prey illegally poisoned. However, in the main these are poems which focus on personal experience and solitary moments.
This is a book I get more from the more I re-read. Her language is crisp and unshowy and her ideas and imagery clearly expressed. She has a conversational style in which the natural inclusion of Scots conveys her own individual inflexions. And there’s a direct and intimate feel: ‘Let’s take our chances here with the mortal, / the common and the mortal’.
The natural world constitutes the core of the book. Condensed observations, a finely-tuned presence in the landscape and an inclusive tone carry the reader along, whether it’s camping out in a remote glen: ‘I pitched my tent / on the emerald knoll / of a mossed-over sheiling hut.’ or watching a falcon behind her home town, ‘her eye all-seeing / as she planes away again / over our rooftops and the firth.’
Thanks to her ability to find memorable and modern similes, these poems never stray into the realm of the idyllic. ‘The View’ has a squall with ‘a smudge of rainbow /clutched like a shopping bag / in her right hand.’
The evocation of place and atmosphere apart, it’s the poet’s thoughts and reactions which stand out. With a few words she can suddenly expand and shift focus:
Change, change – that’s what the terns scream
down at their seaward rocks
fleet clouds and salt kiss –
everything else is provisional,
us and all our works.
What stands out in her approach to the natural environment is her feeling for the otherness of the land and its creatures set against the transience of the individual. A paradox here is that her non-anthropocentric stance still experiences the non-human in human terms. Addressing a remote glen, its heather and ‘small invincible bird’, she says:
I’ll lean on this here boulder
by the old drove road,
and get my eye in, lighting on this and that.
‘It’s nothing to us’ you might shrug,
– and you’d be right.
The personal recollections – childhood, family – cover familiar ground for poetry and are less exceptional, though they do describe a distinctly Scottish childhood. Their link to the natural world is established in two short poems. ‘Corporation Road I’, is three lines long and occupies a whole page. I was initially disappointed with its failure to develop the image’s potential, but it actually demonstrates Kathleen Jamie’s ability to use reticence, making a point with apt imagery and a minimum of words. It tells of a moment in childhood when she’s ‘shown the stars above the steelworks’ glare’. And then in ‘Corporation Road II’ she’s on a swing, rushing towards the sky, when ‘comeback, said the Earth / I have your shadow.’ In its language and subject matter, this is very much a Scottish book, but its theme, together with the fine writing, gives it universal relevance.
In 40 Sonnets, Don Paterson’s brush is more formal and traditional, with its metrical precision and iambic flow. Although form and content work well together, the theme of this book, what gives it cohesion, seems to be the sonnet form itself rather than the individual poems.
Within the discipline of form, the language is casual and contemporary and encourages reading for the sheer pleasure of the sounds and rhythms. I’m reminded of the strengths of the sonnet, its capacity for substance within the given line count, and how the line length and metre gives room for both embellishment and shifts of mood and emphasis. The poet here uses it effectively to develop his ideas and lead the reader on. Often he seems to be making discoveries as he goes along, sharing the element of mystery or surprise. For instance ‘Here’ begins
I must quit sleeping in the afternoon.
I do it for my heart, but all too soon
my heart has called it off. It does not love me.
And by the time we get to the turn we’re in the womb
my dear sea up in arms at the wrong shore
and her loud heart like a landlord at the door.
But there’s a down-side to this. Metrical persistence can lull concentration and make it hard to take in the sense, particularly if reading the collection straight through. And, for me, too much pentameter, which dominates this collection, can begin to sound contrived.
A number of experimental and non-traditional pieces do punctuate the book, including the prose satire ‘The Version’, dedicated to Nicanor Parra, a Chilean poet who championed plain writing in contrast to the prevailing ornamentation of Spanish. Here an imagined poem is considered: ‘the density of its idiom, the baroque recursion of its argument, the depth of its lyric intrigue’ – a nod, perhaps, to a temptation Don Paterson steers clear of in this collection.
Other playful pieces include ‘An Incarnation’, in which one-side of a conversation with a cold caller becomes something else. ‘At the Perty’ is fourteen one-syllable lines in Scots, with necessary translation supplied. But the majority apply traditional form to a variety of subjects: musicians, photographers and poets are addressed; there are thoughtful and witty games with ideas as well as more personal explorations. Sometimes there’s a riddle-like, opaque quality to the writing, but invariably it’s beguilingly musical:
Last night I rowed out to the beeless glade
and lay down on the grass to listen
to the water eating at the edge of things.
Or there’s the almost onomatopoeic quality of: ‘It let out one great drawn-out yawn and swung / away like a hundred gates’.
A number of dedications reflect the poet’s personal interests and pre-occupations and for those not au fait with the names, a visit to Wikipedia is worthwhile. The couplets of ‘Francesca Woodman’ seemed interesting but somewhat gnomic until I looked her up and discovered her photography. Then it all made quite remarkable sense. And learning that ‘Radka Toneff’ was a young Norwegian jazz singer who committed suicide brought the poem of that title movingly into focus.
With Ian Duhig’s The Blind Roadmaker, we’re into a greater variety of traditional forms. This time it’s assertive rhythms and chewy consonants that dominate. He says it all for himself in ‘Long Will’, in Anglo-Saxon style:
where I look for rhythms rum, rough and ramming,
wholesome and heavy as plough horse’s hooves,
I’m bored stiff by beatless, babyish rattlings,
unmeasured metre men’s feet can’t march to;
no clashing of consonants but cowardly vowels
softening such combat to simpering songs.
Throughout the collection rhythmic poems bounce along in an upbeat way but belie the darker and more convoluted content. This is a poet with a mind full of the literary, historical and arcane, but a subversive and satirical sensibility with which to deploy them. His is a poetry of ideas above sentiment, exercising intellectual before emotional muscle, and relishing words and wordplay – a vocabulary he can fling about like streamers at a party:
The downers downed, the brown all tooted,
the homegrown hydroponic skunk
all shotgunned, blown-back, jointed, bonged,
the Queen calls for her royal Swan.
‘The Blue Queen of Ashtrayland’
but also use judiciously:
Book-makers painted Her face
on gum-dragon, alum, ox-gall,
flea-seed and carrageen moss;
‘The Marbled Page’
A number of forms give variety – ballads, songs, a Byronic epic, prose paragraphs, shaped poems – but for me the poems that work best are those with strict metre. This, together with rhyme, where he can be deliberately outrageous (… ‘to remake an old classic,/ which I must do because I am borassic.’) helps me as a reader to navigate the rich language, multiple references and play of his ideas. In fact quite often metre and rhyme seem to set up a parallel intrigue beside the discourse of the poem.
His less metrically distinct writing can seem dense, harder to follow and, to my ear, rather flat. ‘Shapeshifting Ghosts of Byland Abbey’ is written in prose paragraphs and seems little more than a catalogue of stories whose potential is not developed into the layered interwoven ideas of, say, ‘Blockbusters’, where he fires away on all cylinders:
then, in a flash, like Paul, I saw the light
through Peter’s apophatic paradox
to Stevens’ definition of a poem,
mirror image of Frost’s melting ice,
One’s response to a poem is very much connected to its music and rhythm and on occasions I found myself disconcertedly unaffected where the content should do otherwise. ‘Combat Gnosticism’ is about old soldiers’ experience and the impossibility of writing about it. It’s an interesting and serious poem but I had to work hard at re-reading to get under its skin. Of course, these things are all a matter of personal taste in the end, and maybe my problem is that I’m a wimp who ‘likes cowardly vowels / softening such combat to simpering songs’.