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Best Famous Jackie Kay Poems

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by Barry Tebb |

JAMES SIMMONS R.I.P.

 You were the one I wanted most to know

So like yet unlike, like fire and snow,

The casual voice, the sharp invective,

The barbed wit, the lapsed Irish Protestant

Who never gave a shit, crossed the palms

Of the great and good with coins hot with contempt

For the fakers and the tricksters whose poetry

Deftly bent to fashion’s latest slant.



You wrote from the heart, feelings on your sleeve,

But feelings are all a master poet needs:

You broke all the taboos, whores and fags and booze,

While I sighed over books and began to snooze

Until your voice broke through the haze

Of a quarter century’s sleep. “Wake up you git

And bloody write!” I did and never stopped

And like you told the truth about how bad poetry

Rots the soul and slapped a New Gen face or two

And kicked some arses in painful places,

And so like you, got omitted from the posh anthologies

Where Penguin and Picador fill the pages

With the boring poetasters you went for in your rages,

Ex-friends like Harrison who missed you out.

You never could see the envy in their enmity.

Longley was the worst, a hypocrite to boot,

All you said about him never did come out;

I’ve tried myself to nail others of that ilk

Hither and thither they slide and slither

And crawl out of the muck white as brides’

Fat with OBE’s, sinecures and sighs

And Collected Poems no one buys.



Yet ‘Mainstrem’, your last but one collection,

I had to wait months for, the last borrower

Kept it for two years and likely I’ll do the same

Your poetry’s like no other, no one could tame

Your roaring fury or your searing pain.



You bared your soul in a most unfashionable way

But everything in me says your verse will stay,

Your love for your fourth and final wife,

The last chance marriage that went right

The children you loved so much but knew

You wouldn’t live to see grown up, so caught

Their growing pains and joys with a painter’s eye

And lyric skill as fine as Wordsworth’s best



they drank her welcome to his heritage

of grey, grey-green, wet earth and shapes of stone.

Who weds a landscape will not die alone.



Those you castigated never forgave.

Omitted you as casually as passing an unmarked grave,

Armitage, I name you, a blackguard and a knave,

Who knows no more of poetry than McGonagall the brave,

Yet tops the list of Faber’s ‘Best Poets of Our Age’.



Longley gave you just ten lines in ‘Irish Poets Now’

Most missed you out entirely for the troubles you gave

Accusing like Zola those poetic whores

Who sold themselves to fashion when time after time

Your passions brought you to your knees, lashing

At those poetasters when their puffed-up slime

Won the medals and the prizes time after time

And got them all the limelight while your books

Were quietly ignored, the better you wrote,

The fewer got bought.

Belatedly I found a poem of yours ‘Leeds 2’

In ‘Flashpoint’, a paint-stained worn out

School anthology from 1962. Out of the blue

I wrote to you but the letter came back ‘Gone away

N.F.A.’ then I tried again and had a marvellous letter back

Full of stories of the great and good and all their private sins,

You knew where the bodies were buried.

Who put the knife in, who slept with who

For what reward. They never could shut you up

Or put you in a pen or pay you off and then came

Morley, Hulse and Kennedy’s ‘New Poetry’

Which did more damage to the course of poetry

Than anything I’ve read - poets unembarrassed

By the need to know more than what’s politically

White as snow. Constantine and Jackie Kay

And Hoffman with the right connections.

Sweeney and O’Brien bleeding in all the politically

Sensitive places, Peter Reading lifting

Horror headlines from the Sun to make a splash.

Sansom and Maxwell, Jamie and Greenlaw.

Proving lack of talent is no barrier to fame

If you lick the right arses and say how nice they taste.

Crawling up the ladder, declaring shit is grace.



 A talented drunken public servant

 Has the world’s ear and hates me.

 He ought to be in prison for misuse

 Of public funds and bigotry;

 But there’s some sparkle in his poetry.



You never flinched in the attack

But gave the devils their due:

The ‘Honest Ulsterman’ you founded

Lost its honesty the day you withdrew

But floundered on, publicly sighed and

Ungraciously expired as soon as you died.



You went with fallen women, smoked and sang and boozed,

Loved your many children, wrote poetry

As good as Yeats but the ignominy you had to bear

Bred an immortality impossible to share.

You showed us your own peccadilloes,

Your early lust for fame, but you learned

The cost of suffering, love and talent winning through,

Your best books your last, just two, like the letters

You wrote before your life was through.



The meeting you wanted could never happen:

I didn’t know about the stroke

That stilled your tongue and pen

But if you passed your mantle on to me

I’ll try and take up where you left off,

Give praise where praise is due

And blast the living daylights from those writers who

Betray the sacred art of making poetry true

To suffering and love, to passion and remorse

And try to steer a flimsy world upon a saner course.


by Jackie Kay |

Late Love

 How they strut about, people in love,
How tall they grow, pleased with themselves,
Their hair, glossy, their skin shining.
They don't remember who they have been.

How filmic they are just for this time.
How important they've become - secret, above
The order of things, the dreary mundane.
Every church bell ringing, a fresh sign.

How dull the lot that are not in love.
Their clothes shabby, their skin lustreless;
How clueless they are, hair a mess; how they trudge
Up and down the streets in the rain,

remembering one kiss in a dark alley,
A touch in a changing room, if lucky, a lovely wait
For the phone to ring, maybe, baby.
The past with its rush of velvet, its secret hush

Already miles away, dimming now, in the late day.


by Jackie Kay |

SOUND OF SLEAT

 I always looked out at the world,
And wondered if the world looked back at me,
Standing on the edge of something,
On my face- the wind from the cold sea.


Across the waters were mirrors to see
Faces that looked like me,
People caught between two places,
People crossing over the seas.


And it seemed from my croft
-With the old stones and the sheep,
And the sound of the songs in my sleep-
That the music of folk somewhere meets


On the edge of the place we would be.
I’ve lived through some hard times.
My face is lined; my body so frail.
I used to think I might be able –


When the river ran to meet the sea,
When the sun and moon shared the sky-
To look out as far as the eye could see,
And raise a glass to the girl looking back at me.


by Jackie Kay |

The Mother Poem (two)

 I always wanted to give birth
Do that incredible natural thing
That women do-I nearly broke down
When I heard we couldn't
And then my man said to me
Well there's always adoption
(we didn't have test tubes and the rest
then) and well even in the early sixties there was something
Scandalous about adopting
Telling the world your secret failure
Bringing up an alien child
Who knew what it would turn out to be?

But I wanted a baby badly
Didn't need to come from my womb
Or his seed for me to love it
And I had sisters who looked just like me
Didn't need carbon copy features
Blueprints for generations
It was my baby a baby a baby I wanted

So I watched my child grow
Always the first to hear her in the night
All this umbilical knot business is
Nonsense-the men can afford deeper sleeps
That's all. I listened to hear her talk
And when she did I heard my voice under hers
And now some of her mannerisms
Crack me up

All them stories could have really had me
Believing unless you are breast fed
You'll never be close and the rest
My daughter's warmth spills over me
Leaves a gap
When she's gone
I think of her mother. She remembers how I read her
All those newspaper and magazine
Cuttings about adoption
She says her head's an encyclopedia
Of sob stories: the ones that were never
Told and committed suicide on their wedding nights

I always believed in the telling anyhow
You can't keep something like that secret
I wanted her to think of her other mother
Out there thinking that child I had will be
Eight today nine today all the way up to
God knows when. I told my daughter;
I bet your mother's never missed your birthday
How could she

Now when people say ah but
It's not like having your own child though is it
I say of course it is what else is it
She's my child I have brought her up
Told her stories wept at losses
Laughed at her pleasures she is mine.

Yes. Well maybe that is why I don't
Like all this talk about her being black
I brought her up as my own
As I would any other child
Colour matters to the nuttters
But she says my daughter says
It matters to her.

I suppose there would have been things
I couldn't have understood with any child
We knew she was coloured
They told us they had no babies at first
And I chanced to say it didn't matter
What colour it was and then they
Said oh well are you sure in that case
We have a baby for you
To think she wasn't even thought of as a baby!
My baby my baby.


by Jackie Kay |

Baby Lazarus

 When I got home
I went out into the garden
Liking it when the frost bit
My old brown boots
And dug a hole the size of a baby
And buried the clothes
I'd bought anyway, just in case.

A week later I stood at my window
And saw the ground move
And swell the promise of a crop;
That's when she started crying.

I gave her a service then
Sang Ye Banks And Braes
Planted a bush of roses
Read from the Bible, the book of Job
Cursed myself digging a pit for my baby
Sprinkling ash from the grate.

Late that same night
She came in by the window
My baby Lazarus
And suckled at my breast.


by Jackie Kay |

That Distance Apart

 I am only nineteen
My whole life is changing

Tonight I see her
Shuttered eyes in my dreams

I cannot pretend she's never been
My stitches pull and threaten to snap

My own body a witness
Leaking blood to sheets milk to shirts

My stretch marks
Record that birth

Though I feel like somebody is dying

I stand up in my bed
And wail like a banshee

II
On the second night
I shall suffocate her with a feather pillow

Bury her under a weeping willow
Or take her far out to sea

And watch her tiny six pound body
Sink to shells and re shape herself

So much better than her body
Encased in glass like a museum piece

Or I shall stab myself
Cut my wrists steal some sleeping pills

Better than this-mummified
Preserved as a warning

III
On the third night I toss
I did not go through those months

For you to die on me now
On the third night I lie

Willing life into her
Breathing air all the way down through the corridor

To the glass cot
I push my nipples through

Feel the ferocity of her lips

IV
Here
Landed in a place I recognize

My eyes in the mirror
Hard marbles glinting

Murderous light
My breasts sag my stomach

Still soft as a baby's
My voice deep and old as ammonite

I am a stranger visiting
Myself occasionally

An empty ruinous house
Cobwebs dust and broken stairs

Inside woodworm
Outside the weeds grow tall

As she must be now

V
She, my little foreigner
No longer familiar with my womb

Kicking her language of living
Somewhere past stalking her first words

She is six years old today
I am twenty-five; we are only

That distance apart yet
Time has fossilised

Prehistoric time is easier
I can imagine dinosaurs

More vivid than my daughter
Dinosaurs do not hurt my eyes

Nor make me old so terribly old
We are land sliced and torn.