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Tuesday, November 17, 2015
987. The Hinds - Kathleen Jamie
Carol Rumens's poem of the week in The Guardian
Each week Carol Rumens picks a poem to discuss.
Written amid the ‘tremendous energy’ of Scotland’s independence campaign, this supple nature poem might be a livelier than usual image of nationhood
Last modified on Wednesday 7 October 2015 12.12 EDT
Walking in a waking dream
I watched nineteen deer
pour from ridge to glen-floor,
then each in turn leap,
leap the new-raised
peat-dark burn. This
was the distaff side;
hinds at their ease, alive
to lands held on long lease
in their animal minds,
and filing through a breach
in a never-mended dyke,
the herd flowed up over
heather-slopes to scree
where 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.
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The title of Kathleen Jamie’s lively new collection, The Bonniest Companie, published this week by Picador Poetry, is tucked away in The Hinds, third line from the end. As the poet’s note tells us, the words are an allusion to the Scottish Border Ballad, Tam Lin.
In the ballad, the young knight and virginity-bandit Tam Lin is rescued from enchantment by an intrepid, aristocratic young woman, Janet, whom, luckily, he has made pregnant on their first encounter. At the end of the tale, the Queen complains angrily of Janet that “she has ta’en awa the bonniest knight / in a’ my companie”. The phrase “bonniest companie” has an inclusive resonance for the new collection, whose poems mark the natural cycle of the year, and were written, Jamie records, at the rate of one a week during 2014, drawing on the “tremendous energy” generated in Scotland at that time.
In the poem, of course, “the bonniest companie” are the nineteen hinds, met in “a waking dream”, who thereby acquire an aura of magic – dangerous magic that will engulf the one seduced: “you’ll be happy, but never go home”. A couplet in the wonderfully mystical poem, Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit by William Carlos Williams, seems pertinent: “It is the human that is the alien,/ The human that has no cousin in the moon.” Confronted by stunningly beautiful animals, simply and powerfully at one with their environment, we may placate our sense of alienation with fantasy connection: might we not run away and join them? Do ancient tales of Faery enchantment and entrapment draw on such fantasies?
The hinds are real animals, of course, probably red deer, and the poem recreates their wiriness and agility in its own wiry shape and agile lines. The verbs-in-apposition that tie them to their upland location suggest controlled energy: poured from, filingthrough, poured up. Two well-placed “leaps” compress the mass movement (governed by “I watched”) into the individually see-able: “then each in turn leap, / leap the new-raised/ peat-dark burn.” That the “burn” is “new-raised” may suggest recent effects of rainfall: the burn is full and fast. Does “peat-dark burn” carry a tiny echo, perhaps, of “wine-dark sea?” If so, it recalls a thought memorably expressed by the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, defending the Homeric significance of local matters in his war-haunted poem, Epic.
Jamie’s sound-effects range from the subtly consonantal, like “leap”, with its echo of watery hoof-plopping, to the full chords of rhyme: “pour/floor”, “turn/burn”, “ease/lease”, “this/distaff”, etc. The labials of lines eight and nine (“alive/ to lands held on long lease”) evoke the fluidity of the animals’ movement on their own ground. A triple “e/ie” rhyme towards the end, where the boldest hind utters her seductive invitation, is like a simple animal mating-call transcribed into human.
The old-fashioned euphemism “distaff side” marks one of several moments of self-amused anthropomorphism. Jamie’s line-break on “this” signals an emphasis, light-hearted though it may be, on the animals’ gender. Her phrase intimates the social world of the ballad. The hinds also live in a rigidly gendered society, even if their actions hardly seem comparable to the monotonous subservience of ladies spinning the flax. They’re more like Janet, who’s more like a modern woman, free to rove and range.
“Lease” is a loaded word. The deer’s “lease” on the land may well stretch back a long way, but the term that implies temporality and may foreshadow a less settled future. So far so good, perhaps, unless the un-mended breach in the dyke denotes a neglect that won’t always prove benign.
Plain, solid nouns build the mimetic topography: “ridge”, “glen-floor”, “breach” , “dyke” , “heather-slopes”, and the wonderfully onomatopoeic “scree”. “Heather-slope” is a good compound, evoking the depth and layered springiness of heather so thick it seems to be the actual substance of the hill.
Almost suddenly, the poem pauses its flow. Line 15, lengthened a little beyond the others and slowed by its monosyllables, marks the change. From now on, the hinds are standing still, emboldened by distance, perhaps, looking back on the speaker. “Queenly air” is finely judged, and, again, there’s a touch of humour in the conscious anthropomorphism, apparently extended to the almost flirtatious challenge issued by the alpha female.
There’s a characteristic combination of delicacy and brawn in Jamie’s poetry, and both are at work in The Hinds. In its supple energy, the poem might be a riposte to those stiff and gloomy oil-paintings with their antlered images of nationhood, and frequently bearing the title, “Stag at Bay”.
The magic of Jamie’s nineteen hinds is that they are not magic. They’re free and easy and glad-to-be-female, with no hunter – not even a rutting stag – to bother them, or not in the quicksilver moments of the poem. And yet you might read a hint of almost Rilkean challenge in the deer’s invitation: “Come to me,/ you’ll be happy, but never go home”. In other words, perhaps, “You must change your life.”