Lifesaving Poems: Jackie Kay’s ‘Dusting the Phone’



One of the things I love about my job is that I get to co-construct projects with other people. One of the most enjoyable of these has been the Poetry Matters Seminar Series, which finished last week in Leicester with a marvellous reading with Jackie Kay.

As anyone who has heard Jackie read will know, she is the most generous of performers, taking time to explicate Scottish words and personal references in the poems which seemed to float in the charged atmosphere like fire.

The poem below is from my Lifesaving Poems series, and can be found in Other Lovers and Darling.  I first read it in a magazine. What struck me then and still strikes me now nearly twenty years later is the way the poem’s title promises action but in fact describes very little actual ‘dusting’.

I think it is a great example of the way the title of a poem can set up an expectation in the imagination of the reader, then explore the gap between what is promised and what is ‘happening’, which is the poem’s real subject. In this sense the poem itself turns into a kind of ‘hoax’ while asserting itself as the voice of one ‘trapped’ between gratification and desire.

Reading it again I am struck by the poem’s gentle and very subtle humour, the self-mocking dressing up and ‘silver service’ polishing; the playful absurdity of: ‘In which case, who would ring to tell me? Nobody knows.’ These are hints that the speaker is perhaps secretly relishing the pull and push tension of not being able ‘to move’, that not knowing what will happen when the phone once more fails to ring is perhaps the best place to be of all.

Dusting the Phone

I am spending my time imagining the worst that could happen.
I know this is not a good idea, and that being in love, I could be
spending my time going over the best that has been happening.

The phone rings heralding some disaster. Sirens.
Or it doesn’t ring which also means disaster. Sirens.
In which case, who would ring me to tell? Nobody knows.

The future is a long gloved hand. An empty cup.
A marriage. A full house. One night per week
in stranger’s white sheets. Forget tomorrow,

You say, don’t mention love. I try. It doesn’t work.
I assault the postman for a letter. I look for flowers.
I go over and over our times together, re-read them.

This very second I am waiting on the phone.
Silver service. I polish it. I dress for it.
I’ll give it extra in return for your call.

Infuriatingly, it sends me hoaxes, wrong numbers;
or worse, calls from boring people. Your voice
disappears into my lonely cotton sheets.

I am trapped in it. I can’t move. I want you.
All the time. This is awful – only a photo.
Come on, damn you, ring me. Or else. What?

I don’t know what.

Jackie Kay, from Other Lovers (Bloodaxe, 1993)

Lifesaving Poems

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