Written by Hazel Burke

Arts

Could Be Verse

Fancy getting stuck into a sonnet or cosy with a canzone but no idea where to start? In her latest column, our poetry doctor* Hazel Burke finds a friendly hand-squeeze in Darling by Jackie Kay. *She’s not a real doctor.

Emily Dickinson illustration by Louise Boulter.

Darling
by Jackie Kay

You might forget the exact sound of her voice

or how her face looked when sleeping.
You might forget the sound of her quiet weeping
curled into the shape of a half moon.

when smaller than her self, she seemed already to be leaving

before she left, when the blossom was on the trees
and the sun was out, and all seemed good in the world.
I held her hand and sang a song from when I was a girl –

Heel y’ho boys, let her go boys

and when I stopped singing she had slipped away,
already a slip of a girl again, skipping off,
her heart light, her face almost smiling.

And what I didn’t know, or couldn’t say then

was that she hadn’t really gone.
The dead don’t go till you do, loved ones.
The dead are still here holding our hands.

I remember I once found a library receipt tucked into a copy of Jackie Kay’s Darling. The unknown borrower had taken out Darling together with a clutch of books on dealing with depression. I always thought that, whoever they were, they had chosen the right book of poems: tender and strong, clever and kind.

Darling is a tender, strong, clever, kind poem about dying and death. There are a million and one poems about death but this is the only one I know that takes mixes personal reflection with the poetry equivalent of a friendly hand-squeeze when times are tough. Maybe we should all keep a copy of this poem in our medicine cabinet?

The poem, named for Julia Darling, a poet and friend of Kay’s, is a sad and tender portrait of her dying: “when smaller than her self, she seemed already to be leaving / before she left”. The “sleeping”, “weeping” and the way her friend lies “curled into the shape of a half moon” are in contrast to the blossom, the trees and the sun outside where “all seemed good in the world”.

In the poem, as in many deaths, life slips away while friends or family offer a comforting hand. The poem, too, slips off, to where Kay’s friend is released from illness to be “a slip of a girl again, skipping off / Her heart light, her face almost smiling”. (I love that she is only ‘almost’ smiling.)

So far, so beautiful. But then the poem shifts to describe the feelings of the narrator: “And what I didn’t know, or couldn’t say then / was that she hadn’t really gone.”

In the last two lines there is a return to ‘you’ from ‘I’ as the narrator offers comfort to the ‘loved ones’ left behind:

The dead don’t go till you do, loved ones.
The dead are still here holding our hands.

It is now the turn of the dead to hold the hands of the living for comfort. This poem is like the friend who knows what to say when somebody dies: it accepts the sadness and yet manages to offer comfort and hope.

Thanks to Bloodaxe Books for letting us reproduce this poem.
Jackie Kay, Darling: New & Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2007)
www.bloodaxebooks.com

Read all of Hazel’s previous poetry columns here.

@oxpecking

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Written by Hazel Burke

Hazel likes seed catalogues, maps and toast. She lives in Manchester. @oxpecking