Neither in the Wilderness Nor Fairyland:
On Kathleen Jamie and John Burnside
|The Bonniest Companie, by Kathleen Jamie. Picador Poetry, 64 pp., £9.95.
|Black Cat Bone, by John Burnside. Graywolf Press (first published by Cape Poetry), 80 pp., $16.00.
Whit seek ye here?
There’s noucht hid i’ wir skelly lums
bar jaikies’ nests.
—Kathleen Jamie, “Gale”
It’s easy to cast the poet as spokesperson. To read even the most hermetic writer as a representative of national consciousness. To categorize, we’re taught, is to establish order. Set expectations. Kathleen Jamie and John Burnside are Scottish, although to brand the pair exclusively by birthplace would be a disservice to their work. Both write across genres. Jamie’s award-winning essay collections Findings and Sightlines scrutinize the natural world with cultivated empathy and a pathologist’s precision. Burnside’s prize-winning memoirs poignantly narrate his relationship with an abusive father and his own struggle with drugs, love and detachment. His short story collections and novels are widely read. Still it’s his poems, steeped in environmental and spiritual consciousness, that most directly connect him with Jamie. Inflected by place—both poets live in Fife—theirs is a lyricism less representative of a particular country than of the living world. Jamie’s taut music calls for attentiveness. Her lines’ startling clarity expresses an unmixed awareness that reminds us that there’s more to the world if only we push past distraction. Burnside’s troubling (un)knowns break the heart even as his poems’ tonal register and loose iambic phrasing seem to console. If Jamie and Burnside strike at the character of their nation, it’s by their shared acknowledgment of what’s too often overlooked; that is, the mystery of quieter everyday moments, and the beauty and sadness of things in and of the earth, things held by light, residing in water or air.
Not all magnified moments illuminate. Fewer warrant lyric scrutiny. Which is why, though a long admirer of Kathleen Jamie, I met The Bonniest Companie—a book resulting from her pledge to “write a poem a week, following the cycle of the year”—with trepidation. Thankfully, the collection isn’t a catalog of life’s minor business. In musically-charged poems mixing colloquial and archaic diction as well as Scottish dialect, The Bonniest Companie renders the natural and manmade world with an exacting “I.” Although the title (adapted from a popular Scottish ballad) suggests an agreeable group, perhaps some lively band of men, Jamie’s record is one of independence. Generated throughout 2014, the poems span the months before and after the “Yes Scotland” movement lost its campaign to break from the United Kingdom. In fact, it’s the anticipation and aftermath following September 18’s historical vote, which denied Scotland its independence, that hangs above The Bonniest Companie, casting a subtle shadow over the collection’s hillsides and cities, its towering cliffs and tied-up fishing boats.
Jamie designates the first of The Bonniest Companie’s four sections “Merle”—or blackbird, a centuries-long occupant of Scottish folksong and verse. Neither romantic symbol nor embodiment of self, Jamie anthropomorphizes her contemporary bird via the masculine pronoun. Both avian and human, the figure’s duality undermines the idea of nature as “other” and speaks to Jamie’s lyric investment in countering our increasing sense of estrangement from the natural world. “Merle” takes place near a walled-in field where, uninhibited by notions of faith or time, the bird foregoes rest “this Sabbath afternoon” to strike his clear long notes. Although his rich tone “descends / to the year’s first celandines,” the merle remains oblivious to the fact that his song announces late-winter’s turn toward spring. It’s this lack of vanity Jamie finds laudable. “He doesn’t know he’s praise,” she writes. Rather than qualify the bird via description, Jamie eschews the adjective in favor of an abstract object. The merle isn’t praiseworthy, in other words, but “is praise” itself (emphasis mine). By exploiting the noun’s assorted definitions, Jamie transforms the common blackbird into an expression of admiration, offering of gratitude, and act of worship—a turn that well-represents her ability to find radiance in places or things thought common.
While the poet clearly holds the titular bird in esteem, his voice ultimately reflects not only one song, but a more persistent music passed down through generations. Much like his throat’s pattering, the merle, who “doesn’t know he’s born,” appears to exist outside time. Any sense of constancy ceases, however, when “Merle” abruptly leaps from its first to final stanza. Suspended via the poem’s only unpunctuated sentence, the singer’s warbling presumably ends as he scratches (scarts) at a patch of feathers covering his ear (lug). His music gone, the poem turns from a witnessed scene to an imagined one: the “haar [fog] will burn,” writes Jamie, envisioning the soon-revealed “waters of the Minch” and Rum Cuillin’s snow-capped peaks. It’s a minor distraction, this reverie of beauty, but one the poet rejects by returning her gaze to the present. “[F]or now,” she reminds herself and readers, “the blackie’s / the centre of the world’s eye.”
Despite the fact that the lyric “I” gives “Merle” its shape, the poem makes clear that what contains multitudes isn’t the self, but the now. This place, Jamie insists, this moment, this song. “There’s this life and no hereafter— / I’m sure of that,” she contends elsewhere in the collection, “but still I dither, waiting for my laggard soul / to leap at the world’s touch” (“Blossom”). Given Jamie’s lyric investment in the outdoors, it’s tempting to cast her too narrowly, as many critics do, as a nature or eco-poet. It’s true that The Bonniest Companie engages with matters of environmental degradation. A “found poem,” for instance, catalogs wildlife crimes at grouse moors—luxury hunting grounds charging upwards of £15,000+ per day. Estate, Estate, Estate, the poem repeats, a word outnumbered only by its emboldened refrain, “No prosecution.” Despite legal protection, Scotland’s iconic birds meet death on private acres presided over by the country’s elite; this fact doubles the poem’s political charge within the context of The Bonniest Companie, given that the poem borrows its title from Wings Over Scotland, a pro-nationalist website that played a critical role during the country’s campaign for independence. More than a lyric inventory of lifeless raptors, “Wings Over Scotland” reveals itself as a complex matrix that’s both moral and political: the slaughtered kestrels and golden eagles manifest tensions between survival and threat, justice and transgression, natural wealth and national identity.
“Wings Over New York” likewise calls attention to the fettered world when an airborne hawk “pecking at a polythene bag” finds its talons “entangled in the plastic,” then “plunges head down.” As the hawk wrestles to right itself midair, Jamie shifts from realism to metaphor, transforming the bird into “a dreadful winged pendulum,” swinging disaster closer. Unlike the birds in “Wings Over Scotland,” however, the red tail survives, leaving onlookers in Central Park to contemplate the whereabouts of its nest, a location Jamie tellingly pinpoints somewhere between the rooftop gables of the posh Dakota building and the American Natural History Museum. Jamie undoubtedly chooses the hawk for its shrill, raspy scream—a cry she counters via the company of softer-spoken thrushes and sparrows that populate the final stanza. Yet, the chorus of birds isn’t without distress. Reminiscent of the “acrid / smell of gasoline” in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose,” the final lines in “Wings Over New York” mark the collision of the natural and mechanized worlds. “Elsewhere in the Ramble,” notes Jamie, “sounds a tiny NYPD siren /—a starling, high in a red oak.” Unlike Bishop, however, Jamie dwarfs the material (the siren is tiny), emphasizing nature instead. The starling—that ubiquitous bird that has proven itself practically ineradicable—doesn’t fall prey to the manufactured world, but finds a way to adapt and survive within it.
While The Bonniest Companie labors to prove we are not outside nature but a part of it, the poems themselves are as much about complex and often troubled relationships with ourselves and our communities as they are with the earth. Nature, therefore, for Jamie, neither replicates the Romantic impulse of accessing the poet’s concealed interiority via the other-than-human, nor does it exclusively reflect our century’s ecological crises. More interestingly, Jamie’s lyric depictions of high tides and scuttering leaves underscore the human liabilities of apathy and estrangement. “For too long I haven’t / glanced at the sea / fully ten minutes!” she attests in “The View,” whose opening lines register astonishment and self-admonishment. In the animal world, the price for detachment often proves grave. Of swans on a loch—that “arrow-true, close-flocked, ocean-crossing skein, // and bone-weary” band of birds the poet sonically links via compound adjectives and internal rhyme—“None today is the Watcher,” worries Jamie, “none the Vigilant One.” Such negligence risks survival, as suggested by the fox that stalks the shore late in the poem, as well as “a lad they recall / thousands of years ago / skulking in a skin boat with his broken flute / and pockets filled with sling-stones.” If neglect endangers and risks loss, Jamie urges us to ask, what happens when we’re no longer attuned to the nature of our surroundings?
Throughout The Bonniest Companie, an active mind is activism’s truest form. To lack consciousness is a failure of imagination. The poems consider not only what inattentiveness costs us at the moment, but the more permanent losses that will come as we continue to turn our backs on the landscapes we cohabit. “Eyrie I,” for instance, serves as an elegy that needn’t exist, one that anticipates loss rather than laments it:
I was feart we’d lost the falcons
and the falcons’ eyrie
from the whinstone quarry back o the town
—their favoured plinth
vacant so long
grasses had raised
thin flags over it, and winter rain
washed away their mutes [...]
The poem’s pleasures are strange: its matter-of-factness and expectant grief. The acerbic sounds of feart, falcons, whinstone quarry, back, and vacant. The grave-like quarry overtaken by grass. Those capitulating flags. The raptors vanished so long, even their shit (mutes) disappears! Yet, Jamie names the poem not for the bird—“here she is! Conjured out of drizzle”—but what the bird makes, eyrie, the nest that establishes residence. In The Bonniest Companie, man is likewise represented by place and what he manufactures there, whether the “granite statues” or “tattered hopes” that litter Scotland’s abandoned public squares in “23/9/14,” or the “brick-built semi” from which Jamie recalls being carried from as a child in “Corporation Road I.” Not only a source of contemplation and wonder, Jamie’s rendering of place also mirrors our human flaws and fragility. Where we abide, the poems suggest, we must also revive.
The Bonniest Companie represents nature on its own terms, avoiding sentimentality and preciousness by emphasizing its indifference. “Arbor,” for example, finds Jamie “striving to cultivate the strandline’s / take-it-or-leave-it attitude.” As for her “lean[ing] on this here boulder / by the old drove road,” the poet imagines the “small invincible bird” and “heather of the hillside” might shrug, “It’s nothing to us’”—a response the poem corroborates with its truncated line they’d “be right.” But while nature neither consoles nor reassures us, it unguardedly reveals itself. Whether the merle’s dark pupil encased in a yellow ring, or the March snow, or a storm’s distant moaning, throughout The Bonniest Companie “now” is “the centre of the world’s eye,” a means of reestablishing our essential connection with the present. As Jamie advocates in “Glacial,” “Let’s bide here a moment, catching our breath / and inhaling the sweet scent of whatever”. To be “here,” the poet suggests, is likewise to hear, to inhale, to taste, to breathe. To recognize not only the plethora of words that that exist within our limited days, but entire worlds as well.
Don’t the poems we love best sing of the transient beauty of hedgerow flowers, the fleeting joys and pains of love, of our occasional and tentative epiphanies in a mysterious world ... as against the tyrant’s desire for immortality ...?
Whether exploring the remotest thicket or caught in the half-light between insomnia and sleep, John Burnside is a poet drawn to edges. In Black Cat Bone—the poet’s twelfth collection and the first released in the U.S.—moments of self-isolation, romantic disentanglement, murder, and restlessness are marked by a dark lyricism whose music delights even as its subjects discomfort. As is the case with Jamie, language becomes Burnside’s primary means of discernment. In order to sing, in other words, one must first see. While attentiveness in The Bonniest Companie engenders a reconnection with the immediate world, Black Cat Bone charts both physical and liminal spaces. For Burnside, “presence” is twofold: a state of concentration or vigilance, as well as some shadowy form—a specter of sorts that resides both within and outside the self. “It’s not the dead we mourn, in empty kirks / or quiet kitchens, halfway through the day,” observes the poet in “The Listener,” “but something like the absence of ourselves / from our own lives.” The plainness of Burnside’s language and his calmness of tone belie the impression of consolation. In fact, part of Black Cat Bone’s pleasure is that, contrary to many lyric poems on loss or seclusion, its stanzas offer little hope for transcendence or transformation. Whether the space is public or private—an empty “kirk” (Scotland’s national church), for instance, or loved ones’ “quiet kitchens”—matters little: for Burnside, things remembered, imagined, or once idealized haunt equally, as do the then and the now.
In Black Cat Bone, the afterlife doesn’t begin with the last breath. Rather than some spiritual state following death, it’s a condition of the life lived. “Weather Report,” for example, suggests continuity although what’s constant, even at “summer’s end,” isn’t light-filled or abundant but broken and damp. The poem begins with a burial of sorts—“A chill grey over our heads”—followed by a ditch-like road and drizzle,
yard brushes lost
in the mud
hay on the fields,
where crows go
to pick at the drowned.
Heads, end, road, mud, fields, drowned: Burnside scores the natural world as a dirge, the poem’s upper half weighted by consonance. Spanning twelve lines, the opening sentence documents a world that’s cold and grey, its fields filled with “carrion / hay” and scavengers making do. The poem then turns indoors to “boys with their hands // to the glass, making perfect / phantoms of themselves / in their own steam [...].” Here, Burnside’s beautifully pitched series of short vowels joins the boys’ hands to the glass upon which they transform themselves into phantoms of their own air. This simple language and the lines’ benign voice make the poem all the more chilling as its speaker forecasts not possibility, but fatality: “This is the weather, today, / and the weather to come.” Haunted by their passing hours, the boys brace themselves against the future in the final tercet, “already half-persuaded of a life / they never bargained for / and cannot alter.”
As in “Weather Report,” Burnside’s engagement with the natural world reveals a stark alienation that emphasizes dimness rather than clarity. In “Insomnia in Southern Illinois,” the speaker listens as “a barred owl flits” outside “where the mind is a hall / and thought is the voice / of another.” Although the lines maintain some semblance of order via closed rhyme, markers of time disappear as Burnside erases both “a grandfather clock” and the house’s previous owner. What’s left is fleeting beauty steeped in mystery:
and stealthily, as the night haunts round,
the porch light dwindles, without a sound
and, out in the darkness, over the snow,
the tracks of the mule deer come and go,
though nothing is there when I go to look,
only the churn of a passing truck
and that sense of the animals paused in the dark [...]
There’s no real epiphany here, but instead an acknowledgement of the ephemeral. The night haunts. Light dwindles. Deer come and go. “Nothing is there when I go to look,” concedes the speaker. Rather than profundity, what manifests is a momentary engagement with the other, “that sense of the animals paused in the dark” (emphasis mine). The scene is partly perceived, half-heard, (re)imagined. As the insomniac’s “eyes grow tired” and the barred owl “calls” from the mind’s well for the final time, it’s difficult not to hear the self-inquiry of Keats: Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
Insomnia is a threshold, a half-state that reflects well Burnside’s interest in that which falls somewhere between the physical and metaphysical. Black Cat Bone begins with a sprawling narrative, a quest that frames the book’s concerns with nature, community, spiritual exile and transformation. Although “The Fair Chase” leaps through time and explores places where men “search for something [they] could never name,” its plot is relatively simple: an (anti)hero slips away from a pack of hunters, encounters a mysterious presence, and returns to his village changed. At its surface, “The Fair Chase” poses familiar questions. What’s the price of pursuit?, asks Burnside. What drives us into darkness toward that which can’t be seen? Yet, the poem complicates such matters by blurring the lines between hunter and hunted, body and spirit, human and non. Its opening stanzas, for example, collapse the dynamic between the troupe of “blacksmiths and lawyers, ochardmen, / butchers in waiting” and the prey they so desire. Here, Burnside deftly dramatizes the meandering sentence, delaying its most surprising turn until a well-placed stanza break:
but now and then, the beast was almost there,
glimpsed through the trees,
or lifting its head from a stream
to make us out:
a coarseness on the wind
and brittle voices sifted from the morning.
While all seems familiar at first—an animal moves through the underbrush and is later startled at a stream—the shift between tercets inverts our assumptions about power and the natural order. Rather than the hunters discovering the animal, it’s the “beast” to which Burnside gives agency. It makes us out. Written out of the landscape almost entirely, the poet deprives the men of their physicality—even their “brittle voices” disappear in the wind. As “The Fair Chase” progresses, both man and animal become half-specter. Like those before him, the speaker pursues
[...] one of those creatures you find in a children’s album,
a phantom thing, betrayed by smoke or rain
or glimpsed through a gap in the fog, not quiet discerned,
not quite discernible: a mouth, then eyes,
Yet, the quest fails to help the speaker secure his place among men. Rather than triumph and tradition, what he finds is further estrangement when he returns to a village whose graveyard markers and houses appear familiar, but spiritually uninhabitable.
In several places, “The Fair Chase” invokes Robert Frost. Burnside’s solitary speaker chooses “a road less-travelled.” He passes through “a foreign country” where “no hand raised in greeting, / no dog came out / to see me on my way”—an account that echoes the human indifference relayed in Frost’s masterful sonnet, “Acquainted with the Night.” Still, it’s “Directive” that most informs “The Fair Chase.” Both poems walk through woods, and navigate experiences of wonder and confusion. Both concern troubling mysteries that call into question beliefs, superstition, chance, and personal destiny. “Back out of all this now too much for us,” charges Frost of a world that overwhelms. And Burnside’s speaker on his village’s customs and masculine pursuits: “I never quite saw the point.” Like “Directive,” which references St. Mark and the holy Grail, “The Fair Chase” conjures a Christian landscape in secular terms:
[...] I walked out to the centre of the ice
and gazed down through a maze of gills and weed,
to where a god I’d read about in books
—sweeter than pine, but stone-hard in his tomb—
lay waiting for a gaze to curse with knowledge.
Although an epigraph from Psalms foregrounds it, “The Fair Chase” isn’t a parable. After all, it’s Burnside’s habit to ask rather than instruct. Unlike Frost, whose “Directive” ultimately offers the reader clear redemptive waters, Burnside never asks us to “drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” In “The Fair Chase,” there is no wholeness. The poem isn’t about fulfillment, but an obsessive search toward an unreachable and knowable self.
Sensing his target in the underbrush, Burnside’s hunter takes a bullet “loaded with care” and aims “with an intent that felt like love.” Still, no animal meets its end in “The Fair Chase.” There’s no blood in the snow, no trophy to mount above the mantle. After all, pursuit is Burnside’s main game. In some ways, “The Fair Chase” reads like a folk or fairytale. Its stanzas incorporate elements of fantasy, danger, and trickery. Yet, the poem withholds any neat resolution. “Nobody lives here now” laments its speaker in the final tercets, “not even me.” Tellingly, it’s the beast’s phantom cry now “locked” in the speaker’s “bones” that closes the poem, striking a note of anguish for the former life. Although “The Fair Chase” might easily begin once upon a time..., there’s no happy ending for its novice hunter. And perhaps this is what Burnside resists above all else, the ever-after “learned about in story books” (“On the Fairytale Ending”). Black Cat Bone’s final lines, however, do entertain the possibility of fulfillment, as Burnside recognizes the “enormous beauty” of a hare in flight. This encounter, he concedes, “leaves me dumbstruck, ready to be persuaded.” Still, the collection’s main reward is the heightened sensibility its author discovers during times of isolation and uncertainty. Observes Burnside in “Creaturely,” “The only gift is knowing we belong / to nothing.”
It’s said the highest degree of attention is a kind of prayer, that with true attunement the “I” disappears. Although deeply personal, what The Bonniest Companie and Black Cat Bone offer is contemplation that momentarily transcends ego. Unlike many contemporary writers, Jamie and Burnside do not enlarge the self, but instead reconcile what’s half-known and half-forgotten. While Jamie magnifies the present to reveal an undervalued nature, Burnside’s secular attentiveness manifests the otherworld within the world we inhabit. Regardless of their lyric differences, both poets not only ask what—what is the nature of fulfillment? what changes us? what do we overlook and toward what end?—but where. The answer is almost always here.
Ecology comes from the Greek root oikos, meaning house or dwelling place. To live in is to dwell, which also means to linger or ponder. Place, in other words, isn’t only physical but a state rooted in mind. By the time this comes to print I’ll be living in the U.K., whose oldest art is verse. I’ve never traveled to Scotland, although the country I imagine exists somewhere between fact and folktale, a place Jamie characterizes as “neither in the wilderness / nor fairyland // but in the fold / of a green hill // the tilt from one parish / into another” (“The Wishing Tree,” The Tree House). The word fold suggests layering, something overlapped. It also calls to mind a community, one with a shared history or system of values. Among our best living poets, what Jamie and Burnside unfold in verse isn’t a map of a nation’s particular terrain, but a mindful path through the kind of landscapes that hold each of us. As The Bonniest Companie and Black Cat Bone demonstrate, it’s to our advantage to listen, pay attention.
Shara Lessley, a contributing editor, is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale (New Issues). Her poems and essays appear widely. She currently lives in England and can be reached at www.sharalessley.com