Kathleen Jamie – The Bonniest Companie

Full Disclosure: Have read some of her work before. Jamie is a Scottish poet, which means there’s a much greater chance of bumping into her at some point. I’ve yet to see her read, far as I remember. Review copy provided by Picador. [Note that because of wordpress’ formatting limitations the quoted poems are left-justified, which on occasion takes away an element of their meaning.]

Review: Since her first collection in 1982, Jamie has garnered a Forward Prize for Best Collection and Best Single Poem, a Costa Prize, and four TS Eliot shortlistings. It’s a remarkable collection of plaudits, not least for a poet who seems increasingly repelled from the monumental gestures that such prizes tend to value; the pugnacity of the title poem from 1994’s The Queen of Sheba, for example, might appear out of place in The Bonniest Companie. Though the poetry itself is no less undaunted, no less unafraid, it’s all underpinned by a sort of calm mindfulness about the deeply unsentimental cycles of death and rebirth that govern natural life, of which humankind is one point in a continuum.

Which maybe makes the book sound too zen and scientific, though it certainly draws deeply from both streams. The poems are anchored on their immediate surroundings – ‘my own back green’, the walk to the shops, the ‘small invincible bird’ – but their awareness of much deeper processes at work, casting their shadows on all such tiny immediacies, gives a tremendous undertone of sadness, often a very-nearly-vocalised desire to be free from such things. Here’s ‘Thon Stane’ (it might help to have a Scots dictionary handy: dsl.ac.uk is probably the best. While the majority of poems are perfectly gist-able, Jamie provides no glossary, an implicit assertion of the language’s place within the broader spectrum of Englishes):

‘Thon earthfast boulder by the bothy door,
taller than a man and
thrice as broad and
older than everyone put together –

stood there in his mossy boots
like he’s just this very afternoon
wandered down the brae – […]

I open the door, though he gives no hawker’s cry –
just proffers his mute wares,
as he has for long enough.’

That ‘thon’, a word my granny still uses to indicate a usually pointable-to ‘something over there’, puts the poem in a present, self-contained moment. Yet the geological implications of ‘older than everyone put together’, meaning absolutely all humans and probably animals, is right there, hiding in plain sight behind the everydayness of that first stanza, the throwaway ‘ands’ that keep one line tripping on to the next. The wee scene at the end, you’ll notice, is the poem’s only action – poet opens door and looks at big rock – but what histories are packed right in there? The timescale for the boulder to put its boots on and arrive outside the cottage, just to hold out its silent gifts of ‘lichen-saucers / a few lampwicks of grass’? And then the implications in that last line, the hyper-patient ‘long enough’ for which the boulder will endure, still offering its living goods? It’s all a bit fantastic.


The Bonniest Companie opens with several such pieces, which seem to purposefully adjust the reader’s perception of timescale. The opening poem, ‘The Shrew’, begins with the plea, ‘Take me to the river, but not right now’ – a sort of Frost-ish welcoming of death, with a caveat – before concluding:

‘ – but when my hour comes,
let me go like the shrew
right here on the path: spindrift on her midget fur,
caught mid-thought, mid-dash’

Again, the poem’s conception of time is pleasingly knotty. The future final hour becomes not just the present moment but the present place, this particular shrew I’m currently seeing, held in the suspension of its final act, unbounded by a full stop and pushed close to the onward edge of the right-hand margin. Death is weirdly presented here as more of a ‘yes, but also’ scenario. There’s a similarly mythic aspect to ‘Old Women’, one of the finest individual pieces in the collection, best read slowly, purposefully:

‘Thon tree,
earthfast at the foot
of your Alpine meadow,

dark, with mossy branches,
– apple perhaps –

can you give it a message?
Can you please say spring
will be there soon?

It’s creeping up the mountain
as though carried on an old woman’s back.

When we’re old women
we will fetch spring too.

You know the tree I mean.’

It’s such a fine piece of narrative play I can’t decide whether or not I believe there’s a real-world addressee here (there’s certainly no more than one). There’s an air of deep intimacy, that ‘thon’ again in its homely specificity, a tree that can provide for moss and survive the winter, a tree which seems the focal point of an entire relationship. The line ‘we will fetch spring too’ also feels redolent of something folklorey, something between an honour and an obligation, that suggestion that even the turning of the seasons is the result of serious labour and physical endurance. Connecting the tree’s stoicism to that of old women, and old women to a kind of mythic continuity, seems to carry some serious meaning for the collection. There’s a huge amount to be written about the quietly radical gender politics in Jamie’s oeuvre, and The Bonniest Companie adds many subtle layers.

Every time a poem seems to light on some kind of resolution, the book finds a way to complicate or refuse it, keep it in some kind of fluid uncertainty. Though several poems beautifully evoke a kind of deep (maybe genetic) memory – particularly the swans of ‘Migratory III’, ‘a lad they recall / thousands of years ago / skulking in a skin boat with his broken flute’ – the speaker, when she appears as the subject and not the lens of the poem, is often painfully aware of her incapacity to transcend time in the same way. Here’s ‘Blossom’:

‘There’s this life and no hereafter –
I’m sure of that
but still I dither, waiting
for my laggard soul
to leap at the world’s touch.

How many May dawns
have I slept right through,
the trees courageous with blossom?
Let me number them …

I shall be weighed in the balance
and found wanting.
I shall reckon for less
than an apple pip.’

There’s something deeply moving about comparing one’s own propensity to lie-ins with the ‘courage’ of apple-blossom. I can relate. Though again, that apple-blossom works perfectly as an emblem for the collection, that hard-won and short-lasting beauty that might, in spite of everything, come round again. Though the collection presents itself as a kind of year’s notebook, a seasonal cycle, a great many pieces are doing a much harder kind of philosophical labour than that description suggests, and far more politically-minded than nature writing is often credited.


On this point, there are (maybe) two poems that explicitly reference contemporary politics: ‘23/9/14’, a pointedly Scots poem which looks over the ‘withered leaves o shilpit trees / blaw across deserted squares’ and draws itself up at the close, in a movement remarkably familiar in a book about natural cycles:

‘We ken a’ that. It’s Tuesday. On wir feet.
Today we begin again.’

In fact, compare it to ‘Eyrie II’, in which strong winds destroy an osprey-nest:

‘What will the osprey do then, poor things
when they make it home?

Build it up, sticks and twigs –
big a new ane.’

The italics carry the meaning ‘build a new one’, but sound (to me) a lot like ‘begin again’. I begin to suspect that not a single word in The Bonniest Companie is placed by accident. There’s a similar punning wit in ‘Wings Over Scotland’, the name of a pro-indy website, which in the poem becomes a protest against unlawful killings of raptors in Highland estates. If there is a kind of accepting fatalism to Jamie’s thinking about natural cycles and deep time, there’s an accompanying urgency and purpose to her writing about the immediately contemporary. As Stuart Kelly points out, the collection does not include ‘Here Lies Our Land’, a poem inscribed on a rotunda at Bannockburn, describing a country ‘belonging to none but itself’; I suspect that it, too, might have unbalanced the nuanced pieces in The Bonniest Companie.

3 JP

I mentioned at the head of this review that there was a barely-sublimated wish for freedom in the book, which I don’t think can be mapped with any coherence onto discussions of political independence (there’s a wonderful, if short, interview Jamie did with the BBC somewhere windswept in which she talks about making a new country, talking about something that’ll be important in two hundred, three hundred years. Her tone is pure ‘this isn’t about you, or me, nor should it be’). First, here’s ‘High Water’, its long, intricate sentences an almost audible sigh:

‘When the tide returns
from its other life,
bearing its adulterer’s gifts

and the wrack-plastered reef
becomes again a sunk unknown

then we should take our leave – […]

all the lives we never lived
piled behind us on the shore. […]

till the next tide brings us bobbing
back home again – us,
and our shamefaced boat.’

What chance do we have? ‘The Tradition’ agrees:

‘Older now, I know nor fee
Nor anvil breaks these chains
And the wild ways we think we walk
Just bring us here again.’

These are not uncomplicatedly happy reunions. Look, too, at ‘Deliverance’, in which a star shining through branches becomes a pied wagtail trapped in a lobster-creel:

‘O fisherman’s hand, reach in!
Send us chirruping!’

For all its mock-heroism (cf that ‘bobbing’ in ‘High Water’), there is something very genuine, very vulnerable about this plea for release, counterbalanced by the energy and resolve elsewhere. The poem in which the book’s title appears, ‘The Hinds’, is also full of this kind of longing; here, it is ‘the foremost’ of a party of deer who addresses the looker, who has come upon them ‘in a waking dream’:

‘they stopped, and turned to stare,
the foremost with a queenly air
as though to say: ‘Aren’t we
the bonniest companie?
Come to me,
You’ll be happy, but never go home.

The precise phrase comes from a Borders ballad in which the hero, Tam Lin, is rescued by his true love from the queen of the fairies. Naming the entire collection after this particular passage, with the deer standing in as a kind of supernatural envoy, is a strange gesture, and not one I’m sure I understand. The rhyme of ‘me’ and ‘home’ is probably a clue: is the suggestion that one cannot be happy if one cannot go home, maybe the opposite? Is there something in the earlier line, ‘alive / to lands held on long lease / in their animal minds’, that mapping of human conceptions of ownership onto the lives of deer, where they patently do not belong? Ultimately, I think, it is part of a suite of complicated thoughts on roots and community, of environmental coexistence and cohabitation, and makes most sense in concert.

There’s a lot I haven’t discussed here: on the varied and beautiful usage of the Scots language, on the sequence of memory-poems that render the past a discomforting and uncertain place, a deeply moving elegy for Jamie’s mother. The Bonniest Companie is very much a poetry of mindfulness, at times a wonderful book of self-care. In ‘Solstice II’, the book’s penultimate poem, the collection comes full circle, uniting in a moment the mundane and the transcendent:

‘Here comes the sun
summiting the headland – pow!
straight through the windows of the 10.19
– and here’s us passengers,
splendid and blinking
like we’re all re-born’

Tl;dr: This is a magnificent book, one that pushes the boundaries between the natural and the political. Read deeply.

Further reading: Stuart Kelly in The Scotsman

Will Burns in Caught by the River

Jane Routh in Stride Magazine

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing this, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, and you can cancel at any time. Thanks for reading.


4 thoughts on “Kathleen Jamie – The Bonniest Companie

  1. ballsofwool August 11, 2016 / 8:40 pm

    Reblogged this on ballsofwool and commented:
    Kathleen Jamie’s ‘The Bonniest Companie’ reviewed

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