Life Mask, by Jackie Kay

The search for identity behind the façade
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Yeats's lover wants to see behind the mask in case "you", the beloved addressee of all love poems, are really an "enemy". The other refuses. "It was the mask engaged your mind,/ ... Not what's behind." But in Jackie Kay's new collection, questions are posed not by one of the lovers but by different aspects of a self undergoing enforced change. The poems describe how losing love makes you see yourself painfully anew.

The realisation that your lover is having an affair is projected on to a Scottish couple, Paw and Maw Broon, who figure in previous Kay poems:

He lost interest in fitba.

He started eating his veggies raw.

It wis mair than I could staund.

I'd find masell at the sink wey shaking haunds.

This is set off by barer, English-voice lyrics:

When my lover found a brand-new lover,

on the longest day of the year by far

she asked if I would move into the spare room.

The juxtaposition flags issues of identity (language and voice are a mask, poems are masks) while reminding us that this pain is universal. All relationships, all sexualities.

This poet's history - a black child adopted and reared in Scotland - and the personae that have shone from her previous books in many genres since her first collection, The Adoption Papers, make reforging this particular identity an unusually complex matter. In different forms, tones and voices, these poems flicker fascinatingly between oppositions. "Pale" or black, straight or gay, male or female, birth parent or adopted parent, Scottish or standard English?

The poems explore authenticity, allegiance, origins and memory through multiple masks. Some are tried on by the poet ("Fertility Mask", "Rubber Girl", martyr's mask, healing mask), but the book's heart is a testing-my-roots journey to Africa, and the "African Masks" include those of her birth father. "I couldn't tell if he loved me or not..."

This whole brave, rich book is a "life mask" as opposed to a death mask, an affirmation of new life after the death of an old one, and of the relationship around which it was built.

Ruth Padel's 'Tigers in Red Weather' is published by Little, Brown

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