The Stags By Kathleen Jamie (Illustration: Polly Crossman)
Illustration: Polly Crossman

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A poem that sums up a lasting love

The Stags by Kathleen Jamie has always reminded Ella Risbridger of weddings. Perhaps because it’s about a durable type of love

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By Ella Risbridger on

Are stags still in? Are stags still cool?

There was a time, a year or two ago, when it seemed that stags were everywhere. You could buy pretend hunting trophies (gilded and glittery; or artful folded card) in supermarkets. They were on jumpers and cushions and candleholders. I even knew someone with a stag tattoo.

Before that, it was owls that were everywhere. Owls on dresses; owls in glasses; owls on cardigans. Owls on pencil cases.

I hope it isn’t only me who has noticed that animals (like everything else) come in and out of fashion. Googling “fashionable animals” gives me nothing to go on.

Well, not nothing: a dog in a motorcycle jacket; a lemur in a linen suit; a pug in a peacoat; and a pair of guinea pigs in Panamas. But nothing to tell me whether I invented the stag craze. Nothing to tell me if it’s still ongoing.

I hope so, because this week’s poem is The Stags, by Kathleen Jamie.

I am going to a wedding this weekend, for two of my dear friends, and this poem has always made me think of weddings. I don’t know why, really. There’s nothing about weddings in there – no white dresses, no flowers, no favours or chair covers – but perhaps it’s because I think of it as a poem you could read at a wedding, if you wanted.

It’s sort of about trusting someone, isn’t it? About trusting them to show you something, to take you somewhere. It’s about two people noticing things, and showing them to each other; about wanting to show someone the things that matter to you, and have those things matter to them too. It’s about having someone on the adventure with you. And what’s that, if not love?

This, I think, is the kind of poem you could live with for a lifetime, a poem to live alongside a marriage.

It’s a love poem, and it’s an autumn poem – the wind-scoured heather, the hillcrest – and deer seem to me to be autumnal things anyway. The streets are full of blown leaves; the wind whistles through the chimney stacks; somewhere (somewhere far away from central London) there are stags.

There are, actually, deer in London: red deer and fallow deer in some of the royal parks, and they really are a gorgeous reminder that even cities have wild places. It’s always worth remembering the wild places. Kathleen Jamie does this lovely thing, in this poem, where she talks about the antlers of the stags as masts in a harbor, or city spires.

It makes me feel that we’re not so far away, you know? We’re all connected: like Mary Oliver last week, announcing your place in the family of things, there’s a link between us, here, and the stags, there. Our shared country, Jamie says, and although she’s writing about a pair of lovers, there’s something monumental about realising that wherever we are, it’s in a world that belongs to everyone.

Everyone else lives here too, even the deer. Even in the city. And remembering that matters: it matters in a partnership and it matters in the world. You’re not alone. What you do matters; what you do affects others. There’s this lovely moment in the poem when the man has wanted to impress the poet, and yet he turns back loath / to cause fear to the animals: you do what you have to do to live harmoniously in the world.

In a way, you can kind of take it as a template for living, this poem: we’re held, and hold them / in civil regard. For our shared country to work, we must hold everyone (and everything, as far as that is possible) in civil regard.

Things come in and out of fashion; seasons turn; and the only thing we can do is treat everyone with respect, and trust the people we love, and go together into whatever is coming next.

@missellabell

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Illustration: Polly Crossman
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