Monday, August 13, 2007

Findings, by Kathleen Jamie--a review

I read the poet Kathleen Jamie's book of essays, Findings, at the same time I was reading Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights, and though the books were nothing alike, I was struck by how observant both writers are. Both writers managed to make poetry out of the mundane details of life.

Kathleen Jamie is a poet and a lecturer in creative writing at St. Andrews University. When I read about her book on someone's blog (sorry, but I can't find the post again, so I can't give credit where it is definitely due), I was intrigued. She lives in the part of Scotland my father hails from, and her essays describe parts of Scotland I've been to or hope to visit some day.

In the first essay, from a dark, northern mid-December, "the still point of the turning year", Jamie contemplates the meaning of "Darkness and Light". Jamie visits the neolithic ruins of Maes Howe on Orkney, to see the once-a-year occurrence of a single beam of winter solstice sun shining inside a burial chamber. Of the darkness, she writes:
Pity the dark: we're so concerned to overcome and banish it, it's crammed full of all that's devilish, like some grim cupboard under the stair. But dark is good. We are conceived and carried in the darkness, are we not? When my son was born, a midwinter child, he cried pitifully at the ward's lights, and only settled to sleep when he was laid in a big pram with a black hood under a black umbrella. Our vocabulary ebbs with the daylight, closes down with the cones of our retinas. I mean, I looked up "darkness" on the Web--and was offered Christian ministries offering to lead me to salvation. And there is always death. We say death is darkness; and darkness death.

Jamie watches for peregrines near her house, she combs Scotland's outer islands for all sorts of "findings", and she observes things on the streets of Edinburgh, turning her keen eye on the inner and outer worlds and in small strokes, painting a picture of life in modern Scotland.

While exploring a remote Hebridean island, Jamie and her companions find all sorts of detritus, both natural and man-made. A doll's head is particularly striking, but Jamie collects a whale's vertebra and an orb of quartz:
The islands are a twenty-first century midden of aerosols and plastic bottles, and I was thinking about what we'd valued enough to keep. It seemed that what we chose to take--the orb of quartz, the whalebones--were not the things that endured, but those that had been transformed by death or weather...we pick and choose, and I wondered if it's still possible to value that which endures, if durability is still a virtue, when we have invented plastic, and the doll's head with her tufts of hair and rolling eyes may well persist after our own have cleaned back down to bone.

I was moved by this quiet book, with its essays about the small details of life. I didn't know Kathleen Jamie was a poet when I first picked up this book, but it makes sense now--her careful eye for detail, her way of describing the natural world and relating it to humanity, her lyrical yet somehow unromantic style, all speak of poetry. I appreciated Kathleen Jamie's clear-eyed vision in these essays, and will now seek out her poems.


darkorpheus said...

Was it Kate S. who wrote about it? I recall this as one of her titles for the Armchair Traveler Challenge and I was curious about it.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like such a lovely and moving book. Something in the bits you quoted made me think of another favorite of mine, Rainer Maria Rilke.

Gentle Reader said...

dark orpheus--thanks, I'll go back and look! It was so frustrating because I knew I had seen this book mentioned on a blog I read all the time, but then I couldn't find it again.

heather--it was lovely and moving, and poetic. I like Rilke, too, and will have to go and read some--thanks!