erasing clouds

Jackie Kay's Life Mask

book review by anna battista

The word “poetry” comes from the Greek verb “poieo”, that means “to create”, “to make”. Hence, the poet is a maker, a creator - through words - of universes, images, emotions and experiences. Remembering the etymology of this word comes natural while reading Jackie Kay’s latest anthology of poems. Containing fifty-one poems, Life Mask focuses on themes such as love, loss and betrayal, but above all about the use of masks in our ordinary existences. A selection of the poems included in the anthology were actually inspired by a particular experience in Kay’s life: having a bronze head made by sculptor Michael Snowdown (her head is one of twelve herms of poets in Edinburgh Business Park). Kay analyses the process of the making of her head, and the materials used - from clay to wax, from plaster to bronze - become source of inspiration for her poems. So while the sculptor moulds her head in bronze, Kay creates and moulds her poems.

Life Mask is essentially about the masks we wear in our lives, about all the times lovers betray each others hiding between masks and human beings pretend to be polite just for the sake of it. In the collection there is also an important autobiographical theme and that’s the meeting between Kay and her birth father. The author, born in Edinburgh in 1961 to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, was adopted by a white couple at birth and was brought up in Glasgow. The experience of being adopted by and growing up with a white family inspired her first collection of poetry, The Adoption Papers (1991), that won her a Scottish Arts Council Book Award and the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award. The poems in this previous collection were told in three different voices, that of an adoptive mother, a birth mother and a daughter, and dealt with her search for a cultural identity.

While Kay’s politically engaged adoptive parents only feature once in Life Mask, in the poem “George Square”, portrayed while getting ready to join a demo in Glasgow’s main square against the war in Iraq, her birth father comes back in different poems, such as “The Wood Father” and “Medicine Man”: in the former her father is distant and reluctant to tell her anything about her siblings, but he is at least willing to give her an African name, Umeoja, meaning “the good traveller”; the latter is part of a four poem series entitled “African Mask” and it opens with the lines “My father puts on his healing mask;/smells of cardamom and eucalyptus/rise from the carved wood,” but her father’s feelings are revealed when he takes off the mask of the medicine man and replaces it with the mask of a man hiding from his past, telling her “Those were the beer-drinking days. All the women loved me … You are evidence of my past sin/You have my genes.”

Anaphor and alliterations are the stylistic figures used most often in these poems, all written with words that have the power to haunt and wound, like weapons. The power of words and language, which Kay also explored in her collection Other Lovers (1993), is vital to understand this author’s works: in the poem ‘Old Tongue’ she laments the loss of her Scottish accent in an ironic, but deeply sad tone: “Oh where did all my words go – my old words, my lost words?” she wonders, “Did you ever feel sad when you lost a word, did you ever try and call it back/like calling the sea?”

The anthology closes with the short but intense Life Mask, which is also engraved in glass on Kay’s herm stone plinth. The poem is essentially about metamorphosing (“When the senses come back in the morning,/the nose is a mouth full of spring; the mouth is an earful of birdsong; the eyes are lips on the camomile lawn; the ear is an eye of calm blue sky…”), about being turned into a different entity, perhaps spring, perhaps a lifeless object, a “life mask”. The poem is almost Ovidian in its main theme and, in a way, summarises the main inspirations for this anthology.

Of all the universes ever created by poets, Jackie Kay’s is definitely one of the most impressive and touching.


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