Book review: The Overhaul, Kathleen Jamie

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Picador, £9.99

THERE is a moment in The Gather, the longest poem in Kathleen Jamie’s eagerly anticipated new collection, which exemplifies her poetic method. Describing the maintenance of a flock on an island, the narrator describes how the lambs “jumped / very lightly, as though in joy”.

Even stripped of context, there is a deftness in the use of “in”: the cliché would be “for” joy. The actual event precipitating the jumping is the docking and castration of the lambs; as the farmers joke, the lambs “huddled in a corner / and with blood dribbling / down their sturdy / little thighs”. Despite the fact that at Berkeley she is taught as part of a course on Scotland and Romanticism, this is very far from Wordsworth’s succour or Clare’s celebration; nature, in Jamie’s work, is unsettling and challenging. It is upsetting.

The blurb claims that The Overhaul broadens Jamie’s range: I disagree. It sharpens and clarifies the chiselled, lyric intensity which first became the top-note of her style in Jizzen and The Tree House. The witty flamboyance of earlier poems, such as Mr And Mrs Scotland Are Dead or The Queen Of Sheba has been replaced by a tight, taut, tensile quality which gives the poems their emotional weight. It gives the sense of something beyond utterance.

Indeed, though I very much doubt she would thank me for the comparison, there is something beautifully Calvinist about her poetry’s suspicion of imagery, its resistance to the merely eloquent. In the third of her Tay sonnets she expresses it as “What can we say / the blackbird’s failed / to iterate already?”

Like Jamie’s previous collections, this is very much a collection: though the individual poems are in their own rights memorable, ingenious and affecting, the cumulative effect of the book’s architecture is greater than the sum of its parts. There is a shimmer of Dante. The Overhaul opens with a similar sense of being “in the middle of the journey of our life”, it too will have the poet finding themselves, and being lost, in the woods.

The opening poem of The Overhaul, The Beach, ends in the aftermath of a storm with “all of us / hoping for the marvellous, / all hankering for a changed life”. This is as much climacteric as about climate; the poems focus in on life’s turning points; decisions made and regretted and atoned for. The title poem, about a nautical overhaul, ends “it’s a time-of-life thing, / it’s a waiting game / patience, patience.”

Among the standout poems, Roses and An Avowal both project ambiguous and heartfelt intentions and moralities on to the natural, specific floral, world (Roses cleverly integrates the words of Rosa Luxemburg, “I haggle for my little portion of happiness” into the work). An Avowal imagines bluebells “nodding your assent / to summer, and summer’s end”, its “undemurring yes” both affirmative and gloriously indiscriminate. Jamie often introduces an italicised interlocutor at the end of the poems, offering both a summation and a counter-perspective. There is a clear-sightedness which is unflinching.

In perhaps the collection’s most astonishing poem, Glamourie, the narrator suddenly loses a companion in what is “hardly the Wildwood – / just some auld fairmer’s / shelter belt” – whether the companion is child or lover is deliberately unclear – and experiences a sense of almost overwhelming liberation. The narrator falls “to wondering if I hadn’t / simply made it all up. You, / I mean, everything / my entire life”, and “without even pausing to think” loups a ditch, with the “ach” which has become almost a kind of Jamie trademark in her prose. Although some poems, especially translations, are entirely in Scots, she more frequently suffuses the poems with dashes of Scots, significantly lengthening vowels and creating a unique timbre.

The Overhaul has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize. Eliot, I feel, would have approved of her tight-lipped wisdom, her ability to conjure affect without sentiment. «