The Sunday Poem

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The Independent Culture
Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 10: Jackie Kay

A black Scottish poet living in Manchester, Kay has won prizes for books of adult poems, childrens' poems, and a novel. In her direct, compassionate poems Kay explores social issues, getting at the political through the personal in subtle, fresh, funny ways. (Her latest collection Off Colour, shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize, tackles identity, injustice and racism through images of investigative dentistry.) A big motif is alienation: being adopted, being a woman in a male-run society, being black in a mainly white society. In one children's poem, a pale hamster is brought home from nursery school for the weekend, and scampers up the chimney. The child shamefacedly brings back to school on Monday morning a "po-faced" but undisputedly blackened hamster. Kay goes at alienation through irrepressible warmth, direct dialogue (she also writes radio drama), and the expectation, despite the world's cruelty, of a smile somewhere. She has published three collections, plus two for children.

In my country

walking by the waters

down where an honest river

shakes hands with the sea,

a woman passed round me

in a slow watchful circle

as if I were a superstition;

or the worst dregs of her imagination

so when she finally spoke

her words spliced into bars

of an old wheel. A segment of air.

Where do you come from?

"Here", I said, "Here. These parts." I chose this poem from Kay's second collection for the way it plays against the folksong dream it evokes, and makes a political point through the most basic device: punctuation. It begins with no capitals, suggesting a ballad-like world: "the waters" of alienated Babylon, negro spirituals, protest rock. Folk songs beginning "down by" conjure up lonely places where you weep for injustice. But "honest" in the next line questions this resonance. An "honest" river, "shaking hands" with sea? This is no archa izing song: this is a real landscape, seen freshly and amused: where courteous, frank meetings happen. But though river and sea get on fine, humanity is full of estrangement. Racism grows from superstition, imagination's "worst dregs". The other "woman" allies herself with superstition; the poet is allied with the countryside by pairings of sound: "Water/ river", "sea/me". The poem uses structure, too, to evoke folksong but challenge the conserved world it stands for. It comes on at you like a two-stanza folky poem, held together by inner rhymes or vowel-harmonies (sea/me, bars/air/ parts, superstition/ imagination/from), and by symmetry. The stanza break comes symmetrically between "-ition" and "-ation". But unlike the river, these dangerous words "superstition" and "imagination" are abstract; and "abstract" words (from Latin ab-trahere, "drag away") point to something d ragged from, remote from, the real world. These abstracts on the edges of the break remind you of the gulf between the woman and the person she's looking at, or the gulf between prejudiced imagination and "honest" reality. The last line brings in real-life punctuation. No more lower-case balladry: the poet is laying claim to a few capitals here. Earlier, the woman passed round "me" as if "I" (the poem's first capital letter, but in an "as if" clause) "were a superstition". Now "I" is subject of a firm main verb. And the woman's words as "segments of air", "bars" of an "old wheel"? The wheel of tradition, I'd say, which includes race-suspicion - old superstitions carried on through country "airs" and "bars" in the musical sense (song is important to Kay - she has written a book on Bessie Smith and Trumpet, a novel about a jazz musician), which lead to "bars" that are barriers where there is no "shaking hands". Like the colour bar. The italicised question, which still has no proper direct speech-marks - Where do you come from? - is like the line of an old song, suggesting some unspoken answer (say, faeryland, or Hell, or Africa). But the last line shifts us into modern gear. In its understated way, the poem is about the claims of change. Songs have changed, Scot land has changed. It is "my country" too. Claiming the right to "these parts" - to punctuation, identity, capitals, an "honest river" not archaic "waters" of Babylon where exiles once wept - the poet is reminding you that poetry has moved forward, can pl ay with folk form and move out of it, into new shape. c Ruth Padel 1999

`In My Country' appears in Other Lovers, Bloodaxe.