Collection celebrates Kathleen Jamie’s remarkable body of work
Poetry review: Also Michelle O’Sullivan’s minutiae of perception and Ciaran Berry’s brio
Poet Kathleen Jamie in Glasgow
Interviewed by The Guardian in 2005, Kathleen Jamie remarked that her poetry was an attempt to “get the ego out of the way and just look and see what’s there. And people are not stupid, they don’t have to be told what to think […]When we were young, we were told that poetry is about voice, about finding a voice and speaking with this voice, but the older I get I think it’s not about voice, it’s about listening and the art of listening, listening with attention.”
Jamie’s Selected Poems (Picador Poetry, 242pp, £14.99) bears witness to decades of such attentive listening. It’s fascinating to be able to trace her development, in this generous selection of her work, from her first collection Black Spiders (published when she was only 20) to 2015’s The Bonniest Companie. What’s clear is that while many of the poems are small, delicate lyrics, there is nothing slight about Jamie’s achievement. Like Emily Dickinson’s, these pinpoint-accurate, visionary structures coalesce into a remarkable body of work – from the early poems recounting travel in Pakistan and Tibet, to the more local concerns of The Queen of Sheba (1994) where you can almost hear Jamie hitting her stride: something mysterious happens in her work around this time, a quickening of vision, a greater confidence perhaps; whatever it is, it reaches a climax in Jizzen and the stunning nature poems of The Tree House (2004). The short lyric Moult, speculative, watchful, delicate but resilient, possesses the power of a poem like Robert Frost’s Design (which it may even lightly reference). The speaker of this poem finds the discarded feathers of seabirds on the shoreline: “Though they’re dead things/ washed up on the sand / each carries a part / - a black tip, say, to the vane -/ of the pattern the outstretched / wing displays. What/ can one frayed feather / tell of that design, / or the covenant they undertake, / wind and kittiwake?”
Jamie may not yet enjoy – or want – the international fame of some of her most distinguished peers, but this Selected Poems makes clear that she is in the front rank of contemporary English-language poets.
To call Michelle O’Sullivan’s poetry “impressionistic” is not quite to capture the decentred, indeterminate quality of her work. The poems in her third collection This One High Field (Gallery Press, 60pp, €11.95) are high on atmospherics; her debt to her poetic foremothers Medbh McGuckian and Vona Groarke is apparent. Transparencies – a very characteristic title – gives a good impression of the dominant tone: “Light occupies the unpeopled house. It rubs/its weightless hands together and looks to look/ deeper inside. The way a stranger might./ All the airs of keeping watch. The soothing kind. / What else can it do?”
That “looks to look” is typical of O’Sullivan’s very scrupulous, painstaking approach to capturing the minutiae of perception. The combination of abstraction and minute detail in these poems is striking:
A smoke of citrus green
rubs stark from the trees -
I meet your spring self
transient as a flower
from a hellebore.
O’Sullivan seems less concerned with capturing the outward signs of an encounter – and these poems are primarily concerned with encounters – than with registering the alterations it produces in consciousness. The effect, as with much of McGuckian’s work, could be described as phenomenological. And similarly, O’Sullivan’s work skirts the line between the experimental and the conventional: all the recognisable elements of the Irish lyric tradition are here – the light-drenched, shifting landscape, a kind of watery pastoral – but alongside these there is an unsettling abstraction, a restlessness, and a self-questioning quality that keeps the reader on her toes.
Ciaran Berry’s third collection, Liner Notes (Gallery Press, 81pp, €11.95pb), couldn’t provide a clearer point of contrast. If O’Sullivan is in the lyrical/pastoral line of influence, Berry’s work embodies the unmistakeable neo-Augustanism that is the inheritance of the Muldoonian.
In Paul Muldoon’s Capercaillies the first letter of each line famously forms an acrostic that reads “Is This A New Yorker Poem Or What”, and there is a whiff of this about Berry’s work. The defining symptoms are present: a variety of capacious verse-forms, revved up to sustain extended riffs heavily freighted with puns and repurposed clichés; a reliance upon popular culture references so central that they tend to become structural elements in the poems; a restlessly speculative tone; and a certain emotional guardedness.
The titles of these poems tell us much about them: John Peel Mixtape’; Conventions of the Power Ballad; Statler and Waldorf; Columbo; My Mother Meets the Rolling Stones.
Although it is a well-worn groove, Berry carries it off with panache, and there is real skill in his handling of lineation and phrasing. A poem to Dolly the sheep is composed of tight, disciplined couplets: “Maybe it’s the telemetry of our telomeres/that for the tropes of country music makes us pine, / how we begin and end between the theme park and the pen, / in a one-bedroom next to The Wishy Washy / or a glass case in an Edinburgh museum, / our ideas of beauty patterned on the town tramp / or the Finn Dorset in its platonic form. / Always the lamb for which we’ll lie down with the lion, /always that chicken and egg sort of thing”
If occasionally you wish these poems risked a little more, or raised their own emotional stakes more often, there is still much enjoyment to be had from their unquestionable brio.