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rrramble retrospective: Darling by Jackie Kay

The first iPhone graced the shelves. Rihanna blessed us with ‘Umbrella’. Gordon Brown became our Prime Minister.

2007 was a different time – but amongst all of that Jackie Kay’s Darling poetry collection was published. Kay is a renowned Scottish poet, playwright and lesbian icon. Darling contains many of the beloved poems from her previous collections; here they come together to explore themes of gender, sexuality, racism, identity and cultural difference.

Fresh from her stint as Scottish Makar (poet laureate) from 2016 to 2021, we sent our writers to look back on three poems from Darling. So what did they make of it? Read on to find out…

Jackie Kay, a brown-skinned woman with glasses and short hair, is smiling at the camera. She is wearing red lipstick and standing in front of a blue background, which is set in a circle within an abstract illustration in the rrramble colours.
The woman, the myth, the legend…

Jayne

I love a bit of poetry. I’m that pretentious friend that could wax poetic for hours about the written word, especially in the form of a poem. Naturally, I was extremely excited to take on the task of reading some of Jackie Kay’s works. 

As a writer, Jackie Kay is a name I have known about for some time. Back in the days of studying creative writing, our poetry modules were a wealth of discussion around styles and themes and Kay arose as an author who explores certain themes incredibly well. Namely, themes of identity, cultural differences, heritage, sexuality. If only to name a few. 

Of the three poems I read for this piece, two of them were completely new to me. 

‘Keeping Orchids’ explores loss and grief by the way of flowers gifted by a mother. How the narrator watches the flowers refuse to bloom, in time with her mother’s fading health. Kay speaks of trying to remember details, the smaller finer things that most of us take for granted about the ones we know: ‘A paisley pattern scarf, a brooch, a navy coat’ and the desperation of someone trying to cling on to what they know in the wake of tragedy is clear. Kay writes about having only carried the orchids – a gift from her mother – twice before the vase they are in shatters, and I can feel the regret in the words. The wish for more time. The ‘what if’ rhetoric continues right through to the culmination of the poem, where the narrator mentions how ‘Boiling water makes flowers live longer. So does cutting the stems with a sharp knife’. Bargaining is one of the five stages of grief, after all. 

Dissecting the feeling of identity, ‘Between the Dee and the Don’ is another short poem by Kay. One that is, again, new to me, and this one I find less of a connection with but enjoyed all the same. It isn’t even that the topic itself is one I am distanced from, and I do think that Kay handles it wonderfully, with declarations such as ‘I am not forgiving and I am not cruel’ and ‘I come from the old world and the new.’ It’s a work that brings power to the idea of being in-between identities. An idea that can speak to those from multicultural backgrounds or even those battling with self-discovery as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. It’s rhetoric I wholly agree with; being between one place and another isn’t always a weakness, sometimes it can be a source of pride. But something about this poem that I can’t quite put my finger on doesn’t reach into my chest and tug the way ‘Keeping Orchids’ does – and that makes me incredibly sad, for some reason. 

And of course, having read it some years ago when I was at a tumultuous place in my life, ‘Divorce’ remains one of my favourite poems. The humour and desperation of our narrator balance perfectly and sheds a genuine look at what it is like to be stuck between loving and hating one’s family. Of recognising they’re your kin but also wanting to sever those ties for your wellbeing. ‘Those parents are not you. I never chose you’ is cutting and harsh and may just live with me for the rest of my creative career. 

Jackie Kay provides an eclectic look into the thought processes of someone who is neither coming nor going. She battles with identity, family, self-expression and many more in her impressive catalogue of works. If I was recommending a poet to a friend, Jackie Kay would be on the list.

A grey stone statue of Jackie Kay's head and neck is in the foreground, with a very good likeness. It is in front of a bright orange brick wall.
Statue of Jackie Kay, image credit: Renaud Camus

Sophie

Having no expectations of Jackie Kay I still managed to come away from her poems rather underwhelmed. I’m not sure whether I just didn’t fully understand where she was trying to go with it, or if her poems were genuinely just not all that complex. They felt somewhat… 2-dimensional.

‘Between the Dee and the Don’ was an interesting exploration into the ‘middle ground’ of life and could maybe be applied to multiple personal experiences, but for me it was lacking in any form of substance. Maybe it’s a specific cultural experience that the reader needs in order for it to resonate, and maybe it would speak to others in ways I couldn’t fathom. I just seemed to be missing what message or meaning Jackie Kay was trying to present within this poem. I can partially understand the idea of the binaries of society and how claustrophobic that can feel, and I am assuming that’s what this poem was exploring. To be honest, I was less than impressed after reading this first poem, but I am a firm believer in second chances, so I persevered.

Jackie Kay’s ‘Keeping Orchids’ was a pleasant surprise after my disappointment with the previous. It was a haunting recount of her mother’s death that creates in the reader that confused and despaired feeling which accompanies bereavement. It’s as if she is sharing her grief with the reader and allowing them to experience it with her. Almost bittersweet imagery pulses throughout, spurring questions surrounding her relationship with her mother. It ends on a strong image of ‘cutting the stems with a sharp knife’ which is reminiscent of the sharp stab of grief, and brings a melancholic view of the previous image of flowers. This poem was so much more enjoyable to read than the first; it felt a lot more sure of itself and what it was discussing. It prompted a strong emotional response in me which I believe is a sign of a strong piece of poetry. Maybe I could connect more to this one because I have a certain understanding of the experiences she is exploring, or maybe it was just simply a better poem than the previous.

The final poem of Jackie Kay’s that I read was ‘Divorce’, an almost scathing review of her parents and their parenting style. It is very clear what her intention was with this poem, there was no doubt about that. While it was interesting, a lot of the imagery and wording felt almost…childish. ‘Your breath smells like a camel and gives me the hump’ is a rather immature metaphor. It feels like a grumpy teenager rebelling against their parents through poetry. While I’m not in a position to comment on the relationship between Jackie and her parents, this poem did not feel like the critical piece I think it was meant to be.

Overall, while I was not impressed with the first poem, the second two were not as bad. They were okay, but I wouldn’t call them extraordinary or anything special. I don’t think I’ll actively search for Jackie Kay’s works again, but it was interesting to see a different style of poetry to what I am used to.

Keeping Orchids‘, ‘Divorce‘ and ‘Between the Dee and the Don‘, amongst many other poems, are free to read on the Scottish Poetry Library website.

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