Waterlight, by Kathleen Jamie. Graywolf Press. $14.00.
It is sad to read a bad book, and I take no pleasure in denouncing the work of an acclaimed writer like Margaret Atwood. But The Door reads like a very rough draft, and it leaves me wondering what she was thinking when she mailed this off to her publisher. The book should have been kept private. But now that it's out, it must have a public response—and this will prove distasteful for any respectful person. And it is good to be a respectful reader. Impudence is a calcification of one's capacity for awe: this should be avoided by anyone interested in poetry.
There are some OK poems in The Door. I'd be happy with a book full of OK poems from Atwood, for she doesn't need poems to make her career. That she feels poetry offers something fiction can't—this alone is pleasing: perhaps I'm easy to please, but when people feel that poetry's not necessary, I tend to feel that it's poetry's fault.
There are poems here that work to bridge private and public, that show Atwood as a principled artist. "War Photo" and "War Photo 2" describe and then imagine a conversation with a woman dead beside a road:
relaxed into a lovely gesture
a dancer might well study for years
and never attain.
It's a hard and important question, how to reconcile the useless urge to make order and beauty with an onslaught of horrific data. Other poems address issues of responsibility. "The Valley of the Heretics," for instance, a well-observed poem about the Luberon Valley in Provence, explores the speaker's combined senses of history, contemporaneity, scorn, and self-doubt:
The dry wind hurtles down on us; torn plastic
bags like ectoplasmic birds flitter and stream,
and gusts buffet the sign showing a big red blood drop
with white gloves and a grin
As we rush through clouds of the scouring dust
that puffs into the car and powders our hair,
fine lines race across our faces
like speeded-up films of neglected frescoes.
Throughout the book are skillful turns of phrase: in "Questioning the Dead," when the dead finally appear (to a speaker not convinced they exist), they're "smelling like damp hair,/flickering like faulty toasters,/ . . . /trailing their fraudulent gauze," an assonant, humorous, and macabre gesture. And, in the fine poem "Butterfly," Atwood's father, who was a zoologist, walks through the woods to school as a boy and notices
everything: mushroom and scat, wildbloom,
snail and iris, clubmoss, fern and cone.
It must have been an endless
breathing in: between
the wish to know and the need to praise
there was no seam.
But the poems repeatedly break down. Here's an example: "Enough of These Discouragements" opens mid-argument with a "you":
Enough of these discouragements,
you said. Enough gnawed skulls.
Why all these red wet tickets
to the pain theatricals?
Why can't you tell about flowers?
That is a nice echo from "skulls" to "theatricals," as the poem sets up its tension between "I" and "you." The next stanza brings the response, "But I did tell," and then recaps what was told: "snowdrop and rose/unfolding in season," "sunsets," and "silvery dawns, and noons." The "you" was indeed told about "flowers," and more. Immediately following this, however, we learn:
You didn't want them,
these pastel flavours.
You were bored by them.
You wanted the hard news,
the blows of hammers,
bodies slammed through the air.
You wanted weaponry.
This "you" is quite a fickle interlocutor, suddenly wanting the very "discouragements" derided in the first stanza. One can puzzle out that this poem is about readers, that we're hard to please. While the poem proves correct, it's still not good, because its "you" isn't a character but merely a prop. It is perplexing that Margaret Atwood could think this a finished piece of writing, considering what she obviously knows about character development.
Individual poems extend too long, determined to wrench out a lofty significance: in "Blackie in Antarctica," for example, the beloved family cat is "put down" when Atwood is out of town; over the phone, a sister relays that she's swaddled the cat "in red silk/and put him in the freezer," so that Atwood can bury it once she returns home. The poem then keens for the dead cat, and the effect is humorous, even poignant:
Oh yowling moon-
addict, devious foundling,
Oh pillow hog,
with your breath of raw liver,
where are you now?
Yet subsequently the poem ramps up its rhetoric until, after learning that the frozen cat's in "a paradise/for carnivores," and is like a Pharaoh, and also like "a thin-boned Antarctic/explorer in a gelid parka," and also like a "package/of fish," we're informed that the cat "hungered/for justice." But how does a cat hunger for justice, and is this before or after it's frozen? This could have been a fine poem about a dead cat; instead, it's a failed poem about justice. Additionally, this poem and many others exhibit a random, lateral movement of imagery: "a cold craft to it, as with beadwork/or gutting a mackerel" ("Poetry Reading"); "clutching at moons and echoes/and emptiness and shadow" ("Your Children Cut Their Hands . . ."); "a skin a hide a pelt/a scalded rind" ("The Hurt Child"). It is as if the writer had shuffled through an image rolodex.
So what is poetry for Atwood, what does it offer? The Door includes several poems about poetry, and they depict it as an unsavory activity, something one does while wearing a "snake necklace" ("The Poet Has Come Back . . ."), something people respond to with "nooses and matches" ("Possible Activities"). Throughout The Door, the job of writing is unloved, isolated, and thankless. One particularly grisly ars poetica is the twenty-one-line-long "Heart." In it, we read about someone who, instead of selling blood, sells her heart. And the difficult process of extracting the heart is rendered with a hodgepodge of fish imagery—starting with "shucking an oyster" and concluding with a "racket/of fish guts into a pail." Then this odd chowder's served at a restaurant. As the diners judge it "coarse," "salty," and "sour," the combination chef-self-eviscerator, "like a newly hired waiter," listens with a "skilful hand" on the wound in her chest. But if a hand has just turned a heart into fish guts, why is it skillful?
It seems that Atwood is writing poems in a vacuum. To depict poetry as an arcane magic, messy and beyond the petty and contrary work of evaluation—to depict poetry, in short, as irresponsible—she should know better. Rather than blaming craft and critics, Atwood would do better to leave off such self-justification and start interviewing some of those dining on her heart; among them she might find a more assertive editor.
Kathleen Jamie has worked her way up in a man's world—Scottish poetry. While her poems do sound more lithe than the gruff lyrics of Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, or George Mackay Brown, her phrasings are nonetheless robust and often brusque—quite new to an ear accustomed to American poetry's tendency to whisper to itself. Consider the emphatic clang and headlong momentum of "The Barrel Annunciation":
I blame the pail
set under our blocked kitchen rhone
which I slopped across the yard
and hoisted to the butt's
oaken rim seven
or nine times in that spring storm.
Included in Waterlight are domestic poems about being a wife and a mother, and references to laundry, cooking, etc.; yet the poems also insistently address history, culture, politics, and industry. Moreover, the poems travel—literally, to Canada, Budapest, the Himalayas, and figuratively, in their scope and sweep. So, this is not what one might call "women's poetry," nor could it be faulted as the work of some cerebral Athena. It's smart, tough, healthy, clear-eyed, unapologetic—and exhilarating.
Waterlight, though, is a deceptively slim introduction to Kathleen Jamie's ten books. And it's also a bizarre form of introduction, as it begins with her repeatedly waving goodbye—as if she appears in the volume unwillingly or against her better judgment. The book opens with the most recent work, and this as a whole concerns itself with missed epiphanies. Repeatedly some half-hearted gesture of diverting, erasing, letting go, or losing track concludes the poems.
Consider, for example, the volume's two poems titled "Rhododendrons," one from The Tree House (2004), the other from Jizzen (1999). In the newer "Rhododendrons," the speaker sees the flowering shrubs from a boat, apparently while crossing a loch:
It wasn't sand martins
hunting insects in the updraught,
or the sudden scent of bog myrtle
that made me pause, lean
across the parapet,
but a handful of purple baubles
reflected below the water's surface.
This is lovely—that it's not the flowers themselves but their reflection "below" the water, and how this meets the sonic reflection of "purple baubles." Next, however, the reflected rhododendron blossoms appear to the speaker "as comfortable and motionless/as a family in their living room //watching TV," and with this image the poem's energy begins to dissipate; the poem turns away from the flowers' reflection and toward an association laden with passivity, banality, and boredom. Subsequently, when the poem continues—
What was it,
I'd have asked, to exist
so bright and fateless
while time coursed
through our every atom
over its bed of stones
—it's not clear whether the speaker is addressing the flowers or the family watching TV. "I'd have asked," she writes, not quite mustering the requisite effort or interest. And then she ends it, as if knocking over a half-built house of cards:
But darkness was weighing
the flowers and birds' backs,
and already my friends had moved on.
The earlier "Rhododendrons," however, does not abandon its insights on the brink. In four eight-line stanzas, it offers a history of rhododendrons in Scotland, simultaneously concretizing these flowering shrubs and working them as a metaphor for immigration and interculturation. Brought "under sail" from "a red-tinged east," the flowers are
carried down gangplanks
in dockers' arms. Innocent
their blooms a hidden gargle
in their green throats.
Then, after the shrubs come "shuddering on trains" through towns, begins the "terribly gentle/work" of planting them:
globe of the root-ball
or Himalayan earth
settled with them.
This poem is precise and expansive both, its "fertile/globe" echoing the entire volume's wanderlust. It interleaves its subject with a consideration of exotic versus native, mute versus articulate, energizing the rhododendrons and the speaker. While the newer poem proposes oppositions—above versus below, natural versus technological, immediate versus removed (as beneath the surface of the water, or beyond the TV screen), it doesn't develop them, and it doesn't achieve the range or verve of the earlier one.
Or consider "Rooms," a poem from Mr and Mrs Scotland Are Dead, the final section of Waterlight. The poem is so compressed I must quote the entirety:
Though I love this travelling life and yearn
like ships docked, I long
for rooms to open with my bare hands,
and there discover the wonderful, say
a ship's prow rearing, and a ladder
of rope thrown down.
Though young, I'm weary:
I'm all rooms at present, all doors
fastened against me;
but once admitted start craving
and swell for a fine, listing ocean-going prow
no man in creation can build me.
This poem is short, but in the interpenetration of its images it becomes expansive. It's an example, too, of how Jamie's poems buck against typical gender categories. The speaker longs for settled "rooms" that contain the very soul of travel: "a ship's prow rearing" and casting off its lines. Next, she herself is "all rooms" with "all doors/fastened against" her—so she's locked in and out at once, an existence that's both pure interiority and exiled. Then, once "admitted," admitted through the door or admitted into consciousness, out of that inchoate interior state, she begins to "swell" and crave a ship—she becomes the sea. No man can build for her this ship she craves, and no man can build her. As the poem uncoils its mercurial yearnings, to wander, to settle, be unencumbered, admitted, understood, penetrated, independent—it deftly crafts Jamie's situation as a Scottish woman writer assailing the current. This poem moves at breakneck speed, daring the reader to hang on.
I wonder what might account for the less interesting recent work. Maybe self-consciousness got in the way, as if Jamie were aware of someone watching over her shoulder, waiting for her to best herself, distracting her from what Elizabeth Bishop called the "self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration" that makes for poetry. Maybe success has made her feel responsible to her readers, that she needs to be less cagey and more accessible. Or perhaps now that she's kicked her way out of the women's margin and into the main, Jamie simply needs a new antagonist, some other exclusiveness to bust open.
Joanie Mackowski’s collections of poems are The Zoo (2002) and View from a Temporary Window (2010). She received a BA from Wesleyan University, was a Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, and received a PhD from the University of Missouri. A professor at Cornell University, she has worked as...