These poems explore illness, sickness and health, past and present, in a dynamic and original way. They examine not only the sick body but the sick mind and sick society, racism and prejudice. It is Jackie Kay''s third collection.'
Off Colour more than fulfils one's expectations of this writer. A collection of poems initially themed around illness, her other preoccupatations are also articulated as the book develops. From the opening moaning bravado of "Where it Hurts", hyperboles of hypochondria suggest a larger, almost global illness, and for the rest of the volume illness, racism, medical knowledge, religion and abuse are inspected in apparently straight-talking, vivaciously metaphoric poems where the pleasure of reading comes first, and the punch of politics (in its largest sense) follows like an unforgettable aftertaste.
Her employment of the Broons--a famous Scottish cartoon family--is splendid. "Maw Broon Sees A Therapist" scores its jokes from the combination of what it is really like to be in therapy, especially as a buttoned-up Presbyterian housewife, and the fantasy of its premise; when Ma Broon says "A' feel A've aye worn / this same pinnie and this heid scarf / A've got on the noo", the joke is that the cartoon character necessarily has no past.
Kay has a real talent for reinvesting a colloquial phrase with a richness of meaning; "False Memory" ends with the abuse victim carefully cutting herself out of old family photos, a resonant image in itself, but concludes: "Now I can peel back the wet / pages and let her out / carefully. I won't damage her head." Structurally, the volume's maintenance of a broad set of themes makes each poem benefit from resonances from surrounding pieces, and the four poems called "Virus" artfully infect the volume; each begins with a twist on the last line of the previous poem, and ends with a similar variation of the first line of the poem following, as if they have slipped in, mimicked the DNA of their hosts, and attached themselves.
The themes treated--terminal illness, the death of Joy Gardner at the hands of the immigration authorities, adultery, violence--are necessarily serious, but Kay's writing is itself redemptively acute and beautiful and the volume ends with an epiphany celebrating her racial origins which positively blazes with pride and joy. Kay herself is clearly going from strength to strength. --Robert Potts
Read these poems and think of a cheeky show-off Jackie Kay reading the poems out loud in a Glaswegian accent and playing for the half-rhymes and the rhythm.
There are the virus poems, that infect the next poem with their last word or line and make it grow.
There are short story poems, ones that connect with her prose short stories - like 'Maw Brown Visits the Therapist'; and one called 'Love Nest' which is a tale of vermin infestation in Dalston that escalates from mice in the bedroom.
And there are personal recreations of historical trials - from the perspective of the black woman, one on trial, the other the victim.
Read these poems - and the Adoption Papers - if you like Jackie Kay's stories and novels, even if you don't always read poetry. And try reading them out loud.