Published by Picador
Reviewed by Juliet Wilson
Jackie Kay is a talented writer, a novelist, a short story writer, a playwright and a poet. I recently really enjoyed her book of short stories Wish I Was Here and her brilliant novel Trumpet. I was therefore looking forward to reading her new poetry collection Fiere, which is described on the book jacket as ‘her most accomplished, assured and ambitious collection of poems.’
Fiere (the title means friend in Scots) is billed as a lyric counterpart to Kay’s Red Dust Road (the story of her search for her birth parents) which I haven’t read, but the collection stands alone. It is full of the different voices that make up the poet’s heritage, so Scots poems such as Body o’ Land are found alongside poems set in Nigeria such as Egusi Soup. There are poems about ancestors and children, adopted parents and birth-parents; poems inspired by paintings and poems about love and friendship. All are heartfelt, simply written and accessible.
The theme of identity runs through many of the poems. The Nigeria-set poems trace Kay’s experiences in that country as she visited her birth father for the first time. In Ukpor Market she recognises her own facial features in the women around her and is starting to feel proud to be discovering her heritage when:
‘Oyinbo! They say to me. Oyinbo’.
she nods excitedly until her friend tells her:
‘Oyinbo is a pidgin word
for white woman’
By Lake Oguta could be seen to draw a parallel between cultural differences and the river that run into the lake:
‘The river ran into Lake Oguta
but did not mix its waters,
I could see as clear as clear
the tea-brown of the Orashi River
the bright blue of Lake Oguta’
The Scots poems mostly explore friendship and love and the area between:
‘Fir I will bring ye marigowds, my fiere –
ye who whaur there when I needed ye,
ye who are still hale and fere
though you’ve had a rough auld year.’
Readers who are not familiar with Scots will be grateful for the glossary at the back (Marigowds – marigolds; hale and fere – healthy, sturdy).
Many of the English language poems follow the same theme of friendship and love, though often, like the Scots poems, these seem somewhat superficial. The Marriage of Nick and Edward must have been a loving gift to the couple, but doesn’t feel insightful enough to merit inclusion in a poetry collection. This is something I felt about a lot of the poems here, they seem to skate over the surface, and lack the vitality, insight and depth of Kay’s earlier poetry, particularly her 1993 collection Other Lovers. Even though the collection covers a lot of ground, it doesn’t feel as though it really goes very deep.