Kathleen Jamie is a poet, but it’s a curious thing: she never speaks about her poetry in her essays. I’ve read and reread her earlier collections Findings and Sightlines, and I’ve drenched myself in her new essays in Surfacing now a couple of times, but it’s only just occurred to me that if you only come to Jamie through these marvellous books of essays, you’d never know that she was better-known as an award-winning poet and a Professor of creative writing. (Put that P into lower-case, and it becomes obvious that she does indeed profess her writing.) Her website says that one of her poems was chosen by the public to be carved on a great wooden beam at the national monument at Bannockburn, which is national poet status. Maybe she’ll follow Jackie Kay to become Poet Laureate, maybe she won’t. She seems a very matter-of-fact person, from her writing. The feeling I get from her essays is of a person who is unassuming, quiet, direct and interested – constantly interested – in the world and its past and its people.
Also its birds and animals, and – more recently – its archaeology. Surfacing is packed with archaeology. Two long sections are about living and working on digs, one in Alaska and the other on Westray in Orkney. Both are about the past surfacing into the present, and how we forget the vast expanses of time when we hold a small carved implement in our hand that was made 500 years ago, 5000 years ago, and marvel at how like us these people were.
Jamie went to Alaska because she has a long-standing interest in whale bones and what the people of the north-east of England and Scotland collected from the Inuit and other Arctic peoples when they sailed their whaling ships round to the west. (Mouth Music’s song ‘Whaling Ship’ kept coming into my mind when I was reading this part of the book.) After Jamie visited a museum in Aberdeen, she was put in touch with Rick Knecht at the university, an Alaskan archaeologist working on a 500-year old Yup’ik site in Quinhagak, called Nunallaq. The tundra is slowly defrosting because the climate is heating up, and the snows aren’t coming in the winter. And so, as the earth crumbles onto the beaches, objects and materials left in a Yup’ik village 500 years ago are falling out of the tundra.
Jamie lives at this phenomenal site for a summer as a volunteer digger, walking about the village (always careful of bears), making friends, being taken for boat rides up the river, looking closely at the things that surface at the screening stations, where the spoil collected from the dig is sieved and examined for the small objects that otherwise get missed. As well as archaeology there is also ethnology: one of the local girls said that she once found a shaman’s mask at Nunallaq, but took it back, because it had a horrible laugh. One of the older men – a mere sixtyish – brings his seal-hunting harpoon to show the diggers, so they can compare the fittings on his modern weapon to the 500-year old harpoon kit they are bringing out from the ground.
Most moving of all, after the big end-of-season show and tell, where this season’s finds are presented to the villagers for them to discuss and compare, a much smaller presentation takes place in a family home. Three elders in their nineties are invited to come and see some of the finds with a Yup’ik-speaking archaeologist and other elders. They look at them and handle them, telling the archaeologist how their parents and grandparents would have used this, and worked with that, how this looks broken, but that one is a good example; which valley that stone comes from, what was done to the bone to make this effect. Living archaeology, living history. And the village benefits: the younger people are working on the dig, increasing numbers are deciding to go to college, to learn new skills to bring back to the village. There seems a solid consensus that the village is the best place to live since Quinhagak has everything they need. The surfacing village of the past is bringing the present back to life.
The dig at Links of Noltland on Westray also has a surfacing way of life: a new Skara Brae without the Victorian looting. This is an enclosed Neolithic vollage made of stone huts and cattle byres, and with a long history of houses and walls being built here and there on top of and intruding into each other. Once again, Jamie works there for a time as a volunteer digger, staying in a friend’s borrowed house nearby, rather than in a student bunk house. Her head full of thoughts about long-dead Neolithic villagers who loved their cattle and had a firm awareness of the wild and the dark. She comes back to the empty house one night to be startled back into the present by the throbbing strobe of the sun setting behind the giant wind-turbine vanes. The strobe flashes flood into her room in a steady, trancey spiral, like the setting sun seen through the narrow tunnel at Maes Howe on mainland Orkney, like the deeply-incised spirals carved into the lintels at Noltland. ‘Our Neolithic friends would have loved it. Pity I couldn’t invite them round.’
But Noltland would have been a hard place to live and work, and most of the Neolithic people would have died before they were thirty, with childbirth and arthritis the most obvious damagers of their thin, muscular bodies. These people loved their cattle so much they kept their horned skulls carefully for over a thousand years until one, undoubtedly momentous occasion. A building set slightly apart from the others was decorated with all the skulls, placed on the inside wall with the horns facing down, and then replastered and covered with clay until all of the cattle were hidden, but were now integral to the building. ‘Remember, these animals would have had biographies.’ There is enough post-excavation material stored on Westray for decades of work, to let Neolithic life surface again, but is there any money to fund the work? More publicity creates funding, from slots on BBC history programmes to books like this.
These two essays alone would make a fine book, but Jamie gives us other pieces from her life that sit well with the surfacing theme. The next most substantial is the news about Tiananmen Square almost failing to surface while she is staying in a Chinese Tibetan town in 1989, a new episode from her travels that she wrote about in Among Muslims. Once again she talks to people whose lives she will never touch again, people whose language she doesn’t know, but somehow the news reaches her and her friends, and explains the aggressive Chinese police, and the fearful monks, submerged in political complications.
It would be a trite thing to say, that Jamie is a poet and it shows in how she writes about people in this collection, but I will be trite and say that this is so. It’s also placement. the themes connecting and interlacing, the sounds of words and their weight when she’s describing inconsequential things, and moods, and feelings. The joy of walking in the rain with trusted friends, walking without conversation because that’s how they like to walk. The sudden gasp when a boulder crashes onto the path ahead, and the stupendous view out to sea from the burial mound that is inconveniently surrounded by kye. Surfacing is a marvellous book.