Castletown, Isle of Man
How strange the way old lovers move into the present, tense, and catch you off guard; you tell me when you were here last you’d taken the steam train to a place whose name you’ve forgotten, and found a tapas bar. Going to that island is like going back to the past. Once we would have drunk a glass of red together in the Garrison, or waved in unison at the mother and child in that back garden waving at this steam train. I see what you mean, I think to myself, I see what you mean, waving on my own to the time before I was born. These days we travel to the same places alone: first you, then me, to this small, half-way island. I pick up your scent round the narrow cobbled streets, the medieval castle grounds, through the Market Square: I stare at the dreamy boats coming into the harbour, then conjure you, my ex-lover, in the Old House of Keys: walking along the long and dimly-lit corridor, across the stone floor – candle in hand – to friendship carrying the low flame of the past, still flickering, just the same, into the present, to the place that has no satisfactory name.
Jackie Kay was born and brought up in Scotland. She has published five collections of poetry for adults (The Adoption Papers won the Forward Prize, a Saltire Award and a Scottish Arts Council Book Award) and several for children. She was awarded an MBE in 2006.Read more about this poet
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2011. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2011 was Roddy Lumsden.
Jackie Kay's Fiere, her first book of new poems since the personal poems in Life Mask, employs the sort of stripped back language and charming narratives that we find in her excellent poems for children. I like Kay best when she resorts to richer imagery (as she did in my favourite of her collections, Off Colour), and so this poem, which invokes a relationship-turned-friendship in a series of winning images, stepped off the page for me.
I was in the Isle of Man doing some readings and was struck by the place. It felt like it was in a different time zone: the past. Nostalgia in the air. And that somehow childhood seemed preserved there, small kids waving at trains. I was talking to Carol Ann [Duffy] who had been there the year before, and so the poem is really a poem about becoming friends with someone you have been lovers with.