Strike the Match
In Scotland poetry matters. It is the literary equivalent of a watch-fire on the hill. Other cultures may have different uses for poetry but in Scotland we use it as light to see ourselves by and as a signal to warn us of approaching danger or as a celebration of the joy of life. In his latest collection of poems, Plague Clothes (Taproot Press), the Shetland poet Robert Alan Jamieson has lit such a fire. These poems illuminate, celebrate and remind us of how tenuous our grasp is on the precious thread of life.
Written over a five week period from the middle of April to the middle of May this year when the Covid-19 lockdown was at its height and when the nation, literally, held its breath and waited for the plague to pass and when the poet himself was recovering from a coronavirus-like attack. Plague Clothes, subtitled “Poems from the Covid-recovery love-stream”, are a woven lyrical chronicle of a personal journey to recovery and a quietly stated testament of just where Scotland is both psychologically and politically at this time – this fluid, angry, amazing and unpredictable time. As the poet writes,
“Until we were ill
we didn’t know how sick our world was.” (from We lost us for a while)
Robert Alan Jamieson, by focusing on what was happening to him and what was occurring outside his door has produced a vital collection of poetry that captures a period of high tension in our recent history and by doing so has gifted to all who read this hypnotically musical book and who have suffered, the chance to recognise recovery when they see it. To this end there is a photographic quality to the poems and indeed this handsome volume has several enigmatic photos by the author interspersed between poems. Significantly the first one in the book is photo of a stairway leading up through a leafy bower to sunlight.
In recent years Jamieson has published two well regarded novels, Da Happie Land (2010) and macCloud Falls (2017), which have consolidated what was apparent with the appearance of his seminal book of poems Shoormal (1986), that he is one of our most important writers, if not as lauded as some of his contemporaries. This formal tension between poetry and prose has been a feature of Jamieson’s creative development from the beginning and may explain why his work is not so easy for critics and opinion formers to pigeon-hole. On the face of it this is ludicrous: because at their core and in their hearts all Scottish writers are poets. This may be admitted reluctantly or in some cases violently resisted or not admitted at all in others. But it is my experience the poetry that is by necessity in every literary artist will eventually overcome all denial. It does so through the language the writers use and the use they put that language to. The deceptively simple language of Plague Clothes enables the very serious observations and revelations the poet makes to register and resonate with the reader in a way that a more sensationalist approach would not. As Seamus Heaney has pointed out, a poem is always about two things – the first is what the poem is about (its subject), and the second thing is the language the poet uses.
In philosophy – in Wittgenstein for example – language is considered a code or even a game and the question the philosopher asks is, “What does language do to us?” However, the question the poet asks is, “What do we do to language?” Does language float “inexplicably forever in the air as a lasting miracle of creation” as Wittgenstein suggested, or even as a virus, or is it that there is a primal human language (out with countries, cultures and societies) and if that is so how does it differ from the language of animals, the land and the sea, the wind, rocks and plants?
The poet would answer that it doesn’t: that there is a universal language of existence which every living thing shares. For humans this is the mark and mettle of our humanity. For writers the job is to codify this language and turn it into literature. Not an easy task when the body and the brain will not co-operate due to malfunction, as these poems illustrate. Everyday life and illness, especially the coronavirus, is a conspiracy to stop you making even one remotely conscious decision let alone the 35,000 conscious decisions it is estimated that an adult makes on average every day.
As Jamieson writes,
“Language itself grows strange.
I forget the names of all I knew.
Colour, shape and texture blend.” (from I am losing the habit of speech)
Poetry is at the heart of all writing and, as Plague Clothes confirms, the struggles of and for life. Poetry connects the complexity of our experience and that can allow healing, as the poet and artist Alec Finlay, himself a Covi-19 recoveree, so eloquently described in a recent interview in The National.
Poetry can also create a landscape from which all other forms of literature emerge. When experiences are believed, as we write them and as they are read, it changes everything. What poetry does is that it transforms experience, supercharges it, because poetry is about energy – is energy and you cannot destroy energy only transfer or transform it, so poetry can be a salvation when you are struggling with life or with death or are somewhere in between. That is why people turn to poetry in times of joy – birth, love or marriage; and in times of stress – death, disaster or a pandemic. Poetry is the opposite of distractibility, which is the state of being easily distracted, that is, having one’s attention diverted from the task or thought at hand and turning to another unrelated thought or activity. Poetry is a focusing facility. But be warned, poetry is rare in this world, in any language. “The world”, as the American literary critic A. Alvarez pointed out, “is full of blah-blah-blah.” Plague Clothes is the antithesis of “blah-blah-blah”.
It was ironic that Percy Bysshe Shelley’s last unfinished poem of 1822 was called “The Triumph of Life”. It begins,
“Swift as a spirit hastening to his task
Of glory & of good, the Sun sprang forth
Rejoicing in his splendour, & the mask
Of darkness fell from the awakened Earth.”
” ‘Then, what is Life?’ I said . . . the cripple cast
His eye upon the car which now had rolled
Onward, as if that look must be the last,
And answered …. ‘Happy those for whom the fold
We shall never know as Shelley went off and sadly drowned in the Gulf of La Spezia in Italy, aged 29. One of the virtues of Plague Clothes is that no matter how close the spectre of death is – personal, societal – the general acoustic of the collection is of a man happy with life. Like Shelley, whose zest for life is evident in every word he wrote, Robert Alan Jamieson shares this quality but also, like Shelley, has the seemingly effortless ability to turn a lyric into an epic. On a superficial reading Plague Clothes reads like what it is – a collection of finely tuned lyrics. For example,
“New-leaf trees can almost mask
loss that lingers, a mist among them.” (from I sense the sadness)
“Yet sometimes the river gods do intervene,
restoring equilibrium. Today I heard a voice,
a woman keening by the weir, to a loud
accompanying rush of water, falling.” (from I begin an argument with myself)
“it pulls hard tonight, tilting me out
of shape, drawing the liquid self
away from solid ground.” (from I fear the full flower moon)
These are intriguing portals into the lyric-epic which is Plague Clothes, because the poem is fundamental: it is about life and death. And here I think Shetland plays a major part in this creation, although the poems are all set in and around Cramond on the river Forth. The crofting township of Sandness in west Shetland where Jamieson comes from has carved into his consciousness the lyric touch, almost painterly, which slides into the soul and stays there when you have grown up looking at the holms and skerries of Papa Stour and the hay fields of Norby. That transitional facility is one of the major achievements of Plague Clothes. Shetland has also installed in this poet the old tradition of the skaldic journey. In the poem “I look upon a distant coastline” he writes,
“A foreign kingdom calls to me
an hour or months away-“
Is it death or is it Fife? You have to read the book and make your own mind up. In this collection the lyric services the epic which is the hallmark of all skaldic poetry as marshalled into our historic temper by the work of Snorri Sturluson and his “Edda” in Iceland in late twelfth century. Everything new has an ancient root.
That is one aspect. This book is firmly of the present and is because of events is palpably political. One of the poems is title “I despair of our leaders” which is a sad litany of the failings of Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson. A controlled anger is one of the underlying strata’s of this book. For example,
“Many more must die, he tells them,
many more must yet be sacrificed.
Brave warriors all, required now, to
appease the monster at the door.” (from I listen as The Great Leader issues a Great Decree)
The “to” at the end of the third line gives the verse a dramatic pause, as if we are not sure what is to come, even though we know it is a “monster”. The consequences of the “Great Decree” are laid bare in the poem “I remember the dead on the anniversary of victory” where we encounter this,
“I do not project a number that is acceptable,
that number is total – in time, the sum of us all.”
And in “I learn of Lives of Other” this, where the “fakery” of our global capitalist society is summed up as,
“A kind of mad consumption
in the old sense – a rampant disease,
a debilitation of the soul by
over-exposure to a fatal spore,
Again the placing of “by” at the end of the third line gives the verse an atmospheric pause that is echoed in the single word “desire”, which comes both as reportage and as a judgement.
This is a poetry that is both private – the journal of a recovery – and a public event which, because of the coronavirus pandemic, everybody on the planet can relate to. This book is a contemporary reply, in my mind at least, to Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Motto”,
“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”
In Robert Alan Jamieson Scotland has a poet who is not frightened to expose himself to public gaze (and Shetland should be proud!) but who openly engages with us all, because we are all equally vulnerable, on the broad threshing floor of experience. Good writers rise to meet their times. I leave you with, in full, the last poem in Plague Clothes,
I prepare the Pyre
They become like plague clothes, these poems,
to be destroyed, burned somehow.
Cast out of mind and sight.
Symbols of a time I now desperately need to forget.
And even forget-me-nots have their season –
even their blues burn, then fade.
Hope can heal, but once the healing’s done
it’s necessary to let it go – when that happens,
you put the wish beyond your reach.
These clothes have served me well.
Strike the match.
©George Gunn 2020