Mr. and Mrs. Scotland Are Dead: Poems 1980-1994

by Kathleen Jamie
ISBN: 1852245867

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A Review of: Mr And Mrs Scotland Are Dead, Poems 1980-1994
by Kevin Higgins

Since the mid-90s Kathleen Jamie's star has risen to such an extent that she is now, with the possible exception of Don Paterson, the most successful Scottish poet currently writing. Absolutely in tune with the post-home rule Scottish zeitgeist, Jamie's poetry has won for itself in Scotland a popularity comparable to that of Simon Armitage in England and Billy Collins in the United States. A jacket-blurb from the Scotsman goes so far as to say that: "Genius is no stranger to the work of Kathleen Jamie." Of course it's always best to take such over-effusive praise with a giant dollop of salt. However, the sheer dynamism of her much anthologised "The way we live", first published in 1987, indicates that at least some of the hype is justified:

Pass the tambourine, let me bash out praises
to the Lord God of movement, to Absolute
non-friction, flight, and the scarey side:
death by avalanche, birth by failed contraception...

One of the interesting things about Jamie is how she casts a cold, nay, a jaundiced eye on the world around her, and yet somehow retains a kind of optimism. In "Mother-May-I"(1994) she tells us how though the woods are a place "where hitch-hikers rot / in the curling roots of trees, / and men / leave tight rolled-up / dirty magazines" she still wants to go out into them:

Mother may we
pull our soft backsides
through the jagged may's
white blossom, run across the stinky dump
and muck about
at the woods and burn
dead pleased
to see the white dye
of our gym-rubbers seep downstream?

This selection kicks off with the previously uncollected View from the Cliffs (1980) in which "Orkney rises like the letter D" and "Philosophical fishermen" lift "lobsters for London." The Orkney/London dichotomy is here a foretaste of Jamie's later concern with all things Scottish. The title poem of her first collection Black Spiders, published in 1982 when she was just twenty, has some of the erotic charge of the afore-quoted "Mother-May-I". And in a poem such as "November" one gets the sense that a significant talent is finding its feet. However, most readers will probably skip through the eleven poems from Jamie's first collection, and make straight for the real meat of her subsequent work. Reading the poems from A Flame In Your Heart (1986)- a sequence set during World War II-it seemed as if Jamie's significant talent hadn't yet found its subject matter. Although the poems are quite formally assured. And in her description of a pilot being shot down she shows what she's capable of:

There was a sort of quiet feeling, as if
wardrobes and pianos were
falling silently downstairs,
before the plummet, what happened you said
when you were hit, how the ground rears up like a
rabid mare

Jamie's work really comes into its own in her third collection The Way We Live (1987). Apart from the title poem there is "Julian of Norwich", and another (far more interesting) sequence "Karakoram Highway" where among "Soft talking somnolent takers of tea / and a three-legged dog" she sees the devil "baking chapati". At her best Jamie has a wonderful ear for the inherent musicality of language and a great eye for the idiosyncratic image.
Kathleen Jamie is a poet forever restless to try something new. Indeed, this is one of her most admirable qualities as a writer. But she is also occasionally a little misguided in the strategies she chooses. The Autonomous Region (1993) is another sequence, dealing this time with Jamie's journey across China towards Tibet during the lead up to the Tiananmen Square massacre. In poem no.13 Jamie for some reason decides that China is the place to suddenly start talking in a pronounced Scots dialect:

Folk that talk lik rivers o risin
will be swept awa tae gutters lik the rain
o this dynasty o wickitness
grieve agin the night and howl wi dugs.

In some dialect poems such as Tony Harrison's "V" or Blake Morrison's "The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper" there is an inherent unity between the poem's subject matter and the manner in which the poet decides to speak. No such unity existing here, Jamie's sudden switch into Scots dialect seems gratuitous to say the least.
The Queen of Sheba (1994) is the final collection represented here. In The Deregulated Muse, Sean O'Brien observed that Jamie's work has-in The Queen of Sheba and since-become "a poetry of the Condition of Scotland." Several of the most successful poems here deal with Scotland in the immediate lead up to home rule. In "Mr and Mrs Scotland Are Dead" we see the Scotland of the past "her stiff old ladies' bags, open mouthed, spew / postcards sent from small Scots towns/ in 1960" onto "the civic amenity landfill site." There is something rather Larkinesque about the "Mr And Mrs Scotland" portrayed here as "the bulldozer comes / to make more room, to shove aside / his shaving brush, her button tin." In "The Republic of Fife" Jamie glances back at one of the main reasons for the recent wave of nationalist sentiment in Scotland: "the motorway / where a citizen has dangled, / maybe with a friend clutching / his/her ankles to spray // PAY NO POLL TAX on a flyover / near to Abernethy." Later in the same poem she looks hopefully into the future:

my house
on whose roof we can balance,
carefully stand and see
clear to the far off mountains,
cities, rigs and gardens,

Europe, Africa, the Forth and Tay bridges,
even dare let go, lift our hands
and wave to the waving citizens
of all those other countries.

Jamie seems to be on something of a roll here, having at last found her subject matter. There are pitfalls though for poets lauded for speaking on behalf of the "Nation" or this or that fashionable cause. Particularly when the cause is one as limited as Scottish home rule, which in and of itself hardly adds up to a world view. In Ireland, Eavan Boland (for her feminism) and Paul Durcan (for his satirical take on the Catholic Church ) were both once similarly lauded, but have lately come to be rather tame laureates for things as they are. After Scottish home rule, one might ask, what now for Kathleen Jamie?
If her most recent collection Jizzen (1999) is anything to go by, Jamie is writing more and more in Scots dialect. And the mix of Scots dialect and standard English in The Queen of Sheba poems is certainly very convincing. I just hope that she doesn't end up writing exclusively in Scots dialect because, to paraphrase something Don Paterson said about fellow Scottish poet WN Herbert: when Jamie writes in English a thousand times more people get to see how good she really can be.

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