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Life Mask by Jackie Kay (Bloodaxe Books, 2005)

Jackie Kay, the author of Trumpet, has also written short story collections, novels for children, plays, and poetry both for children and for adults. She believes that poetry is important because it "manages to say in words things that you can't otherwise say [...] gives a voice to the voiceless".

Readers of Jackie Kay's earlier book of poetry The Adoption Papers, will know that the writer was adopted as a child. In this, her latest book of poetry, she relates the experience of meeting her biological father in Nigeria, as well as writing powerfully about the end of a love affair, and about the questions of identity that were prompted by the unusual experience of having a bronze cast made of her face!

Life Mask

The Poetry Book Society chose this book as one of their Recommendations in 2005. Here's what their selectors said about Life Mask:

"Jackie Kay's work has always had an uncompromising, tender directness, an empassioned ability to connect with her audience. A large part of that audience is delighted to hear a voice untroubled by the postmodern niceties of lesser talents. She has negotiated the difficult territories of identity and sexuality with engaging aplomb, and humour has helped her to cut through the Gordian knot of ingrained prejudice. As the speaker put it in 'In my country' when asked where she is from, '"Here," I said, "Here. These parts."' I say 'the speaker' but there is little doubt that Kay's poems frequently speak from her own situation, and nowhere is that clearer than in this volume.

In Life Mask many of her apparent certainties undergo a painful testing. These are poems of break-up, of jealousy and betrayal. There is a powerful section recounting her engagement with the difficult presence of her birth father which bears comparison with the triumphant assertion of identity in the earlier 'Pride': 'I danced a dance I never knew I knew./Words and sounds fell out of my mouth like seeds./I astonished myself.' This collection is astonishing in quite a different sense.

The business of having a bronze head cast for display in an Edinburgh park has given her the perfect opportunity to explore her own masks and layers of identity. An air of being tested to the point of breaking gives many of these poems the air of being meditations in an emergency, and the book is a triumpant reassertion of Kay's core values: directness, decency, emotional honesty above all. Many of these poems are pared down, infused with song-like simplicity (some of them have indeed been set as songs) - they are torch songs in the best sense of that term, carried by the unmistakable mark of a personality determined to come through."


You can see an interview with Jackie Kay here and hear her read poems from Life Mask and other books here.


Discussion points:

The reviewer talks about some of the poems being song like. Can you identify which ones these are? What do you think is the difference between poems and song lyrics?

What makes our identity? What do the poems tell us about the poet's identity? See Jackie Kay's blog on identity here. What elements make up your identity?


Other books that include poems about fathers are:

Essential love: poems about mothers and fathers, daughters and sons -- West Hartford, Connecticut: Poetworks/Grayson Books: Poetworks;Grayson Books, (Book) - Adult Anthology 

Generations: poems between fathers, mothers, daughters, sons / Hart, Melanie (introduction); Loader, James (introduction) -- London: Penguin: Penguin Books, (Book) - Adult Anthology 

Haven't you grown! poems about families -- London: Kingfisher: Kingfisher Books, (Book) - Child anthology 

In Daddy's arms I am tall : African Americans celebrating fathers -- New York: Lee and Low Books: Lee & Low Books Inc. (Book) - Child Anthology 

Parents: an anthology of poems by women writers / Fanthorpe, U.A. (foreword) -- London: Enitharmon Press: Enitharmon Press, (Book) - Adult Anthology 

Portrait of my father in an English landscape / SZIRTES, GEORGE -- Oxford: Oxford University Press: Oxford University Press, (Book) - Adult Collect 

A snail in my prime : selected poems / DURCAN, PAUL -- London: Harville Press: Harvill Press, (Book) - Adult Collect 

The zoo father / PETIT, PASCALE -- Bridgend: Seren: Seren Books, (Book) - Adult Collect 

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