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Diana Athill

The Wave Cry, the Wind Cry

Sightlines
By Kathleen Jamie (Sort Of Books 242pp 8.99)

'I sat there, as the others worked, and wished, as I so often do, that I could draw.' Where the poet Kathleen Jamie sat was within the rib cage of a blue whale, in the hvalsalen (the whale hall) of the natural history museum in Bergen. Her wish was needless because her written words make readers see with a clarity bestowed by only a few most gifted writers. It was, however, an enlightening wish. It expressed the intensity of her own seeing, her gift. Only someone with obsessively hungry eyes can write as she does. It makes her, to borrow John Berger's words quoted on the jacket of Sightlines, 'a sorceress of the essay form'.

It does not matter what she is describing, you see it with her. In the first of these essays she is on a ship threading its way between icebergs up the longest fjord in the world. In the morning sunlight an iceberg glows 'marsh-mallow pink', and 'trinkets' of white ice are scattered along the shores. In the next essay, she is in a hospital in Dundee: having concluded that nature 'is not all primroses and otters', she needs to get the feel of our own intimate inner natural world, the body's shapes and forms. She has therefore found her way into a pathology lab, and then into a post-mortem. 'I thought "we are just meat", then called it back. Flesh, bodily substance, colons, livers and hearts, had taken on a new wonder.'

Then there follows a youthful introduction to archaeology on a dig in Perthshire, during which she was present at a rare discovery, and a visit to a gannetry, a cauldron of 'loud and fretful noise', the 'public clamour' of thousands of seabirds greeting and squabbling, fussing and sparring, from which the din, and also the whiffs of ammoniac stink, rise almost to overwhelm her reader. Then come the whales, or rather their majestic bones - in the flesh they were thrilling glimpses below the gannets' cliffs, and they will reappear even more thrillingly, later in the book, off the island of Rona.

It is islands that play the most satisfying part in this profoundly satisfying book, two of them in particular: St Kilda and Rona. Though the survey of St Kilda that she was invited to join is extraordinarily interesting, the island failed to live up to her dream of it, having been interfered with. Its population left it as a result of the good intentions of a rich Englishman who, early in the nineteenth century, was appalled by their primitive stone dwellings and gave them money to build better ones with windows and chimneys and separate byres for their cattle. But how could they replace broken window-glass, or any part of a house made of wood in that treeless place? The 'better' houses sickened and died, and seventy years later all the people had left for the mainland. Now there is a radar base on St Kilda, a warden and a shop, and Jamie's friends were studying its past with the help of a swarm of satellites. The island's beautiful remoteness has been compromised.

Rona has not been properly inhabited since the late seventeenth century. In 1680 a shipwrecked man came ashore and found all its people dead - who knew how? And no one knows who lived there before those doomed people, although archaeologists can discern dim traces of yet earlier habitation. Rona's past is veiled, its remoteness is unsmirched. A rich population of birds and animals flourishes.

Never, alas, shall I creep at night into a ruined chapel and be startled by 'a stuttering laugh in the air, a burst of high chatter, sudden as a match-strike', while out of the chapel's walls there come rapid replies. As Kathleen Jamie says, you have to go a long way to find a breeding colony of storm petrels, a way I shall never go. But now I feel that I have been there, that 'surf, seal-song and petrel glee' have been part of my experience. (The petrels, by the way, make their darting visits to their nests at dead of night to avoid the bonxies - the skuas - that prey on them.) And soon after the petrels came the family of five killer whales that did not kill a single seal of the many which had gathered in apparently anxious groups to watch them, but simply raced at high speed right around the island, then headed off into the distance. Among this book of many delights, whales are important.

It is not often that the prose of a poet is as powerful as her verse, but Jamie's is. There are people uninterested in books about remote places and wild creatures; but to the rest of us Sightlines will be a treasure.


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Diana Athill is the author of Somewhere Towards the End, which won the Costa Book Award for biography in 2008.


TLC


Royal Literary Fund