Coming up to the surface

Coming up to the surface

Review: Surfacing

Author: Kathleen Jamie

The notion of long-buried things seeing the light of day again is a theme in this recent prose collection of Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie’s, encapsulated in its title – artefacts tumbling out of the melting permafrost, pottery fragments surfacing in a ploughed field, miners surfacing from a mine, a grandmother surfacing after depression, memories surfacing after decades, old ways of doing things surfacing in our plastic-proliferated present.

This idea of surfacing brings out the cyclic nature of time, something easier to miss in an urbanised environment, with deadlines and notions of progress and commutes from A to B, but more prominent in a country setting, and also something a poet tends to bring out, poetry sailing as it does on rhythm – circling, a spiralling perhaps.

Jamie visits a Skara Brae-type archaeological dig in the west of Scotland, where they have found a small stone box, within which, she writes, one might expect to find a cryptic message, a talisman, from the past, a message to our fraught present, but it is empty – a metaphor perhaps for the study of history? When our present resurfaces as archaeology, what will it tell about our progress and decline? (She is thinking of the layer of Anthropocene pollution.) Is it a learn-able lesson? Or, as Hegel said, do we learn nothing from history? Jamie is told that the site has enough material to keep PhD students busy for years. Neil Oliver and his BBC crew visit in their shiny black Range Rover, prevail upon the tired archaeologists to be more enthusiastic for the camera about the riches they have found – for the relentless cycle of TV documentaries – and leave. A local visitor offers her lesson by summarising, ‘we don’t live very long’.

Jamie visits a remote Indigenous community in Alaska preoccupied with the advance of the sea and the retreat of the ice. Chunks of land are disappearing so quickly that houses are being relocated. There she again participates in an archaeological dig. The village has modern conveniences – four-wheel motorbikes, guns, fridges – but the loss of traditional knowledge is being painstakingly addressed. Memories return when artefacts are unearthed. Stories too are unearthed. She likes the Indigenous people’s habit of ‘coming at a subject sideways’ (which is what a poet does too). They miss nothing. They are attuned to the land, and the cycling of seasons. Here one is more likely, says Jamie, to imagine the land before roads and farms, as ‘unparcelled’ and whole’.

For the Scottish Jamie, and for many of her readers, Alaska has an otherness, and she asks the locals if they are scared when out on the tundra. (Bears, the vastness.) ‘Why?’ one elder replies, ‘This is our backyard.’

Nick Mattiske blogs on books at


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