Jackie Kay’s new collection of poetry The Empathetic Store could only be described as ‘very Kay-ish’ in that her body of work has brought about its own adjective. As a novice to reviewing poetry I felt quite daunted by the plain blue paperback, turning over its front page over to encounter what I assumed would be a bombarding barrage of baffling metaphor and vague similes. With a title such as “The Imaginary Road”, I thought, here comes the barrage. I was wrong. In fact, it was as if the little blue book had been waiting for a poetry-phobic like myself to ease me into the literary medium without the dread of possible enigmatic themes and impossible imagery. “The Imaginary Road” opens the collection with seven simple stanzas. As the speaker directs the reader down the road of imagination, the rhyming scheme is simple as is the language. The last stanza highlighted exactly what I should not have feared in poetry, and certainly not the poetry of Jackie Kay. The speaker says “The road that was your friend/Will be waiting in the end/It will hold out a helping hand/As you draw your line in the sand”. Kay’s first poem of the collection has certainly held out its helping hand inspiring me to turn another page.
The Empathetic Store is quite an eclectic collection of poetry in that it does not follow one overarching theme, yet there is an essence that flows throughout the pages: nature in its many forms, the landscapes it creates and also the nature of the people who live there. Much of Kay’s poetry is inspired by Lochaline, a village in the Scottish Highlands. These poems are wrapped in fondness and warmth, each painting a picture of home not only for herself but for her readers too. It is perhaps Kay’s personification of nature that gives that air of familiarity, for example in “Rannoch River”, her father was “missing the river’s long conversation”; and in “Ardtornish Dark”, she writes of the “cattle grid clearing its throat”. It is, however, in “The Ardtornish Quintet” where Kay really drives home the sense of belonging and the beauty of small highland villages. The second poem of this quintet, “Lochaline Stores” , portrays the beauty in human nature by bringing a more than usual sense of caring: a shopkeeper that minds his/her customers more than the cold sole objective of selling his/her goods. Kay uses repetition constantly throughout the poem, giving a humorous rhythm to the mimicking of a shopping list.
Throughout Kay’s collection, she elegantly paints the natural wonders of life in the Highlands. There are a few poems scattered between that are highly political and on current topics such as immigrants and refugees in Britain. The contrast of the two strands seems odd at first; however, they begin to blend on the subject of feeling welcomed in the highlands versus the unwelcoming emotions portrayed in the more political poems. The poem “Would Jane Eyre Come to the Information Desk?”, a poem which tackles the deportation of a Jamaican woman, explores the ideas of rejection of other cultures and of immigration. The poem is written in a Jamaican patois thus positioning the audience’s point of view with that of the immigrant and not with that of the British deporting them. The poem thus becomes even more horrifying and real to the reader.
The Empathetic Store is a text I would recommend to anyone, be you poetry pursuing professionals or, like me, sometimes a little afraid of what lies beneath a stanza. The Empathetic Store welcomes you into a quiet life of good values in the Highlands, but also keeps one eye on current political problems, portraying how wonderful it is to be welcomed and how horrendous it is to be turned away.