This poem was published in Severe Gale 8, the second half of a larger collection, Adoption Papers. Much of this poem was inspired by the poet’s experience in England and Scotland during the 1980s. It is a social commentary delivered in the form of a dramatic monologue.
The poem is dedicated to Margaret McAllister, an English author who was born in 1956. She’s known for writing children’s books.
Explore He Told Us He Wanted a Black Coffin
‘He Told Us He Wanted a Black Coffin’ by Jackie Kay is a powerful poem and social commentary about Great Britain in the 1980s.
In the first part of the poem, the speaker describes how they wanted to fulfill the son’s final wishes and get him a black coffin, but they were far too expensive. Instead, they got a pine one and painted it black. This did the trick, and her son was buried after living his life fully and dying suddenly of what was revealed to be AIDs.
She knew her son was gay since he was thirteen, she notes in the following lines, and recalls an incident where another woman insulted him. The poem concludes with lines conveying the son’s dying wish to stay off of any painkillers as well as a series of deeply sad memories from his life that come to the mother’s mind.
The main theme of this poem is loss. It is followed by other themes of illness, LGBTQ+ rights, and more. The poet alludes to what life was like in England and Scotland for LGBTQ+ individuals in the 1980s through brief lines about an interaction the narrator had with another mother. The mother is filled with grief over her son’s passing, but at the same time, she’s able to look at his life and illness with a great deal of clarity.
Structure and Form
‘He Told Us He Wanted a Black Coffin’ by Jackie Kay is a four-stanza poem that is divided into sets of eight lines, known as octaves. These octaves are written in free verse, as is common in Jackie Kay’s poems.
Despite the lack of formal structure, the poet does use a variety of literary devices, like repetition and caesura, to help give the poem a type of structure. The lines vary in length and are always suited to the feeling the poet wants to convey. For example, “Everything is all messed up.” This short, direct line at the beginning of stanza four makes the speaker’s feelings known quite clearly and directly.
The poet uses a few different literary devices in this poem. For example:
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. Or example, “morphine” in line one of stanza three.
- Allusion: a reference to something outside the scope of the poem. For example, the poet alludes to Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his colorful life.
- Repetition: the use of the same literary device, word, or another part of a poem. For example, the poet repeats the word “morphine” to reinforce the son’s determination to be “alive” while he’s “alive.” The words “dead” and “alive” are other examples.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of stanza one.
I phone up the funeral director,
None but Derek’s flowers.
In the first stanza of ‘He Told Us He Wanted a Black Coffin,’ the speaker begins with a stark opening line about the cost of buying such a piece of furniture. The speaker, as is later revealed, is a mother whose son has passed away from AIDs.
The speaker’s son wanted a coffin that ended up being too expensive after his death, but the family couldn’t afford it. They had to go with something cheaper, a “pine one.” This is an “ordinary” choice, one that many others have chosen before them. They painted it with a “matt” black paint to make it look “black” like the deceased son’s furniture. Clearly, this was the color and style the son was interested in, and that, even after his death, represents him.
Plus, the image of painting a coffin black is a somber one. It adds darkness and gravity to the occasion. The coffin “looked smashing,” the speaker adds. This word feels out of place and strange regarding the occasion.
The poet mentions Charles Rennie Mackintosh in the first stanza as well. He was an artist and architect who died of throat cancer. He’s famous for a picture of white flowers (and white lilies are mentioned in the following line). The poet may be connecting the fact that Mackintosh died of throat cancer to the absence that the mother’s son has in his throat in the following lines.
These past few days I can’t stop thinking
and he cried when Gavin moved to Aberdeen
These striking lines contain the mother’s memory of her son at five years old when he had an abscess in his mouth. She wanted nothing more than to take it out and put it into her own. She speaks about this very matter-of-factly as though it’s quite obvious that, as a mother, she’d want to do this.
The mother remembers a time (in the fourth line of this stanza) when she yelled at another woman, “Mrs. Calder,” after she insulted her son and alluded to her sexuality by calling him a “poof” in front of her own son. They may have been friends at one point, but this surely put an end to that.
The final two lines of this stanza reveal that the mother knew throughout her entire life, from when her son was really young, that he was gay. She understood the emotions he showed when one of his childhood friends, Gavin, moved away to Aberdeen.
While she never uses the word “gay” or explicitly describes her son as liking men, the implication is clear. It’s these details, and those included in the third stanza, that her son died of AIDs.
No morphine no morphine no morphine,
his thumb tap tapping my palm,
me saying you’re all right son.
The third stanza contains the mother’s memories of her son’s bravery and stubbornness as he died. He didn’t want to numb the pain of his illness. He wanted to feel everything. He’s determination is conveyed through the repetition of the words “no morphine” and “alive.” No doubt, the mother hoped her son would do whatever he could to ease his pain, but he chose not to. She also admires this about him as she admires his bravery to live his life as he chooses to.
The following lines reiterate the fact that the son didn’t want any assistance in his dying days, nor was there really anything anyone could do for him. There was no “first aid box” that would help him, and he refused anything to ease the pain, like Germolene, a numbing solution that he could’ve rubbed on the sores on his body.
The main thing she remembers from these final days is the feeling of his thumb tapping on her “palm” and her repeating over and over again, “you’re all right, son.” This a caring, kind, and motherly thing to say to one’s child, but it also reveals how little there was for her to do for him.
Everything is all messed up.
The poem concludes in the fourth stanza with the line, “Everything is all messed up.” This short, punchy line is hard to ignore. It helps carry the reader into the final images of the “boy” and “man” in the different phases of his life.
The mother remembers him as he was at the end, as well as how he was as a child. He’s both a “child” and a “man” at the same time. Especially at the end of his life when he was an adult but in his hospital bed, he looked like a child. The speaker compares him to a “person from Belsen.” This is a relatively obscure reference to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Nazi Germany. The son was that degraded and sick.
The final two lines of the poem are deeply sad. The mother remembers him as a child, singing at a “school concert” and saying that this warm, youthful memory doesn’t seem “that long ago.” The phrase in parentheses, “what was it?” includes the mother’s internal thoughts and her desire to remember what exactly the song was that he sang all those years ago. This suggests that while she loves and remembers her son in detail, the more specific memories of his life may be fading.
‘He Told Us He Wanted a Black Coffin’ is about a mother’s experience of her son’s death from AIDs. She recalls a variety of memories, some much happier than others, during the lead-up to his death.
The main theme of this poem is loss. The poet also engages with the theme of illness. The main character is a mother who narrates the poem and describes the loss of her son from AIDs.
The tone is sorrowful but also very direct. The mother isn’t wallowing in grief. Instead, she’s conveying a simple series of emotions and memories of the end of her son’s life.
Kay is a Scottish poet who is known for her contemporary, free-verse poems. Many deal with family relationships, LGBTQ rights, Great Britain in the 1980s, real-life events, and mother/child relationships.
If you enjoyed this poem, you should also consider reading some other Jackie Kay poems. For example:
- ‘My Grandmother’ – a personal poem in which the poet describes what she remembers about her grandmother.
- ‘Got You’ – a poem concerned with sibling jealousy
- ‘Plague’ – a poem that is narrated by a woman whose sons are about to die of the plague.