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;
Poetry is as much a mirror that reflects the reader as a window to the writer. It's very interesting to read a poem that captures so well some facet of my own existence, but then reflects a reaction thereto that's a complete opposite of mine. I've always reveled in my otherness, whether I was in the US, the UK or in Nigeria at the time. I'm hardly above little venal flourishes, an over-emphasized accent here and there; and my favorite technique for getting to know others is to focus on serious questions of their own heritage and identities. But Jackie Kay does take me to the riverside in her poem, and opens into my own sense the cold tap of her own feelings as she finds herself probed by a stranger.
I have no idea why (it's certainly not toward from immediate logic) Kay's poem should bring me so to mind of a bit of Hopkins's "Carrion Comfort".
...whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one?...
What great force of hap flings us, dashed like broken china, to half-borrow a trope from John Pepper Clark's "Ibadan," among the continents, those seven great hills rearing out of the oceans? And what gathers assorted locals around, fascinated by the shattered pieces of our identities? By the way, as heavily anthologized as it is, Clark's iconic poem is always worth another look.
Running splash of rust
and gold-flung and scattered
among seven hills like broken
china in the sun.
—"Ibadan" by John Pepper Clark
I'm a sucker for a volume of poetry that features a glossary of Scots and another of Igbo, especially when there might be but one in the species, Kay's Fiere, a lyric counterpart to her memoir, "Red Dust Road." She wrote these books throwing a light upon her quest to understand her Scottish birth mother and Igbo birth father.
Many poems in Fiere (Scots for friend, mate, companion) grow out of the experience Jackie Kay had tracing her birth-parents, as chronicled in her memoir Red Dust Road. But this collection of 44 poems has a stronger focus, one which draws on Kay's unusual personal story but grows into a celebration of what it means to be close to someone.
I've just ordered the book, so I can't comment in-depth, and Kay is new to me just today, but already she gives me an impression of a poet I'm likely to appreciate through shared understanding, like an Okigbo or even Catherine Tufariello, rather than for its distant brilliance, like say the work of Eliot.
In Nigeria, she sees a road "stretching/ perhaps into infinity/ to a foreseeable future/ and back to/ lost time".
Which reminds me of a work of my own, "Nchefu Road," which has loomed large in my notebook for 2 decades, but which has struggled to work its way to a finish. Igbo, journeyings and the inchoate. With such common threads clear upon the fringe, I look forward to pulling at the warp of Kay's work.