Tag Archives: Sightlines

Cairn by Kathleen Jamie

I knew before I saw a copy in Waterstones, Piccadilly, that I would love this book. I had already found Kathleen Jamie ‘s previous books, Sightlines and Surfacing, absorbing, thoughtful, full of engaging observations, mostly in poetic form. Some of the pleasure came from her archaeological excursions.

The cover is beautiful.

The book is lovingly produced with clean paper, pencil illustrations, nice print.

I was in London for the weekend immediately following the election, ready to celebrate and ready for new ideas.

Cairn

A cairn is a pile of stones, usually small stones, usually created by people as they pass: ‘rough old assemblages, decades of stones heaped on stones!’ We see many cairns on Dartmoor, some even raising the height of a tor. 

The title beautifully indicates the nature of the contents of this short volume. It is made up of short pieces, rarely more than two pages, most only one, being descriptions of small moments, observations and reflections on these moments, and many considered through the passing of time. (Just like pebbles). The publisher calls them micro essays, but ‘micro essay’ seems to me to be too modern an idea, or at least too modern a term for these short pieces.

In the prologue she reflects on how, reaching 60, ageing affects how she sees things, thinks about things, about herself, her life.

My younger self wrote her earnest poems, and scampered through her thirtieth year. Sixty was different. Now there are more certainties. I can still look out at the sea alright, by night or day, but now, the shape of my life’s arc is becoming visible, as it were. It is no longer below the horizon. Unless there is a sudden curtailment, I can sense the shape of my life pinned against the longer spans and cycles of the natural world I was born into. I can imagine the world going on without me, which one doesn’t at thirty. Or shouldn’t. (18)

Ageing includes seeing the world differently from how one’s children see it. She talks to active young people who do not know about Greenham Common, for example. The image of the stones, rounded by years, centuries, aeons of time reflects the epigraph from John Berger: ‘Stone propose another sense of time …’

Perhaps that is why the arrangement of stones in Kettrle’s Yard, Cambridge is so moving.

Kettle’s Yard, July 2023

She muses on the uncertain future of the planet, her fears for it, as humans are so careless with it.  

Short pieces, usually of beautiful observations of the natural world, but also of people working together to preserve it (eg demos), looking at how aging changes observations, and how she fears for the future of the planet.

We are everywhere surrounded by those down-curves out of abundance into scarcity, even into extinction. (61)

The fears are for the world, but also for her children and the generations to come. 

Kathleen Jamie gives us some poems too. In 2021 she was appointed Makar, the Scottish national poet. I read her work because she keeps me focused on the wonders of our world. Was it because I had read this volume over the weekend that I noticed what raindrops on the trees when I took the dog into the forest this morning for her walk?

Holden Forest, Devon. July 2024

These poems and short prose pieces, complemented a weekend spent with friends, with art (Now You See Us, Women Artists in Britain 1520 – 1920 at the Tate), and with music (Schubert Quintet performed by the Esmé Quartet at the Wigmore on Sunday morning). Culture, nature, community. The last line of the shape poem Cairn is 

We are more than the sum of our parts. (131)

And as it is with stones, and people, so it is with words.

… a word is not a single and separate entity; it is part of other words. Indeed it is not a word until it is part of a sentence. Words belong to each other … [Virginia Woolf in a BBC radio broadcast in 1937: On Craftsmanship]

And the last words of the epilogue

A raven glides past, giving you the eye.
Huh, she croaks, you. (136)

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie (October 2019)

Cairn by Kathleen Jamie, published in 2024 by Sort of Books. Pencil illustrations by Miek Zwamborn. 139pp

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