I missed your face for years and years,
In all the galleries, on all the walls,
Up and down the corridors
At the top of spiral stairs
After years and years of
Head of a Negro Roman Period Bronze
Plastic Vase Negro Head 11 or 111
Century AD, terracotta,
The Judgement of Solomon 1220
Or the Young African Woman
Kneeling in the attitude of prayer,
You were a breath of fresh air!
Not Slaves waiting for sale;
Not the Plantation burial;
Not a reminder of Longfellow’s
In the dark fens of the dismal swamp.
You were not found on a fountain
Between the Observatoire and the Jardin
Du Luxembourg, or turned into a statue in a Square.
Queen Victoria did not present a bible
To you; and you were not an exotic other either.
Here you are as I come around the corner.
I might have missed you altogether.
Born Fanny Matilda
In St Andrew Jamaica 1835
Daughter of a former slave
And former slave owner
Recorded as Mulatto. Mulatto!
You are The Jamaican Pre-Raphaelite Muse!
Mother of ten, widow, working class.
You are beautiful. Strong.
You turn the gaze around,
With your regal profile
Your fine head and figure
Your high cheekbones.
Your finely wrought nimbus of afro hair
You could have been out there
Never to be found, on the fringes of history!
Here’s your grace, your poise
Right at this moment when I needed you
To walk down the long corridor
To climb up the endless stairs in the dark
Here in The Beloved, and again
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin. You live here.
You’re a housekeeper in Hammersmith
You’re a domestic cook on the Isle of Wight
And tonight, you are muse. I’m up in the night.
Here in the graphite, you are the most yourself.
Not the needlewoman, not in turquoise beads,
But unadorned and yet more beautiful,
the authentic self in pencil, not oil.
You gaze down through time
As if you could imagine it all,
As if you knew the years we’d travel.
And the years you might have lost.
You are the great- great- great grandmother I never met.
You appear in the glass and disappear tonight.
In the missing days and missing nights
When I come down the stairs
Into my empty hall past midnight
To find nothing at all on my walls
No photographs, no paintings,
No tapestry, no wall hangings
Everything blanked out
The life vanished, and disappeared.
The interest gone and the fizz fizzled out
The house turned into a ghost house.
The grief seeping in through the letterbox
And through the old stone walls
And the songs gone too. I don’t know what to do,
Until I think of you,
And piece by piece, you return to help.
Bit by bit – the empty wall, the line of masks.
In the small hours, in the small moments
In the swimming dark, in the long pool
You are suddenly let loose from your drawing
And swimming in the midnight pool of my mind
The one that might just let me sleep
Sleep the sleep of the sane and calmed friend
Sleep the sleep of the one who can let go.
You leave it behind, the violence of the years
The violence of your father, the ships, the mast, the caste
The burning cross, the blacked-up face,
The rising taunt, the called-out names,
You let them go, as far as is possible, out to sea
And you swim back and forth
In the midnight pool with your jet black curly hair
The moon lighting your path
You take a breath for the time that’s lost.
Out on your own now
You swim the length of a century.
You are the voice from the future, suddenly…
Not the past, here to tell us something
We struggle still to hear.
Jackie Kay describes her discovery of Fanny Eaton as two time worlds coming together. Fanny was born in Jamaica in 1835, and the graphite drawing of her by Simeon Solomon feels very vivid to Jackie, as if “she is right there”.
Discussing Fanny’s life leads Jackie to talk about how we need more black work in our galleries, paintings of black people or by black people who have been hidden from history, thoughts we hear developed in Jackie’s poem: “Fanny Eaton, the Pre-Raphaelite Jamaican Muse”
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From the collection of C.J. Knowles; Mrs Loÿse Knowles
Jackie Kay was born in Edinburgh. She is the third modern Makar, the Scottish poet laureate. A poet, novelist and writer of short stories, she has enjoyed great acclaim for her work for both adults and children.
Her first novel Trumpet won the Authors' Club First Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize. She is also the author of three collections of stories and two poetry collections, and her memoir, Red Dust Road. She is Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and divides her time between Glasgow and Manchester.
She collaborated with the University of Cambridge Museums as part of Thresholds (2013), responding to Kettle’s Yard.