This poem was included in her 1993 collection, Other Lovers. The title references a classic British food—pork pies and alludes to a darker meaning. When changed slightly, “pork pies” becomes “porkie pies,” which can be used to describe when someone is telling a lie.
The collection focuses on relationships, and this poem is no different. It conveys the intricate, strange relationship between the speaker and her sister, as well as their mother and the boy the girls kidnap.
Explore Pork Pies
‘Pork Pies’ by Jackie Kay is a startling poem about young girls committing an unspeakable crime.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how a boy, Bobby, followed her home. As the poem progresses, it becomes clear that the girls intend to have him follow them. They fed him and gave him soda to convince him to stay longer and then kept him, against his will, upstairs. He remained there for at least seven days until someone from the street saw him waving. The speaker reveals that she threatened Bobby previously, telling him that something terrible would happen if he made his presence known to anyone.
The police are called, and the speaker’s identity as a young girl, who, along with her sister, kidnapped a boy, is revealed. It’s not until five days later that Bobby is found, and at this point, it’s unclear whether or not he was found alive or dead.
The main themes of this poem are lying and kidnapping. Control is also a major theme throughout ‘Pork Pies.’ The two young girls, who are named Hannah and Helen at the end of the poem, kidnap and keep a young boy, Bobby, against his will. Despite their age, the girls are capable of a great deal of darkness.
Contemporary Events Relevant to Pork Pies
Around the time this poem was written and the collection, Other Lovers, was released, two young boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, were arrested for the kidnapping and murder of a two-year-old boy, James Patrick Bulger. It’s possible that Kay had this event, as many did, on their minds as she was writing this poem.
The poem asks readers to question at what age a child becomes criminally responsible for their actions. In the case of the death of James Patrick Bulger, the offenders were ten years old and were therefore charged as adults.
Structure and Form
‘Pork Pies’ by Jackie Kay is an eight-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains are written in free verse, but the poet does use several half-rhymes that help give the poem a feeling of rhyme. For example, “pies” and “life” in stanza one, as well as “television” and “seven” in stanza two.
The poet uses lines that vary in length as well as sentences that are quite different from one another. There are some lines that contain one-word sentences and other sentences that stretch across three lines or the entire stanza, as is the case with stanza five.
Readers should also notice the poet’s repetition of “our” and “we” in the text. This emphasizes the fact that the sisters are inseparable. They are in it together and blamed to the same degree.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Repetition: the use of the same poetic element more than once. For example, “Putt Putt Putt” in stanza four and ”No Sir” in stanza eight.
- Juxtaposition: seen when the poet contrasts two unlike things. For example, the crimes the girls commit and their age and innocent appearance.
- Caesura: seen when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of a line of verse. For example, “and waved. He had been warned. Bad Bobby.”
- Alliteration: this literary device which refers to the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words, is found throughout the poem. For example, the name “Bobby Baxter” whenever it’s used.
We’re not together anymore.
(he had five) our whole life
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker begins by saying that “we,” either the siblings or the siblings and Bobby Baxter, are not together anymore. Something is going to change over the course of the poem that leads to their separation. But, as of now, it’s unclear what that thing is. The speaker goes on to describe what happened right before their life changed.
A boy, Bobby Baxter, came home with the siblings, and they made him feel welcome, feeding him “mini pork pies.” He drank all of their pop or soda, which, at the time, they didn’t seem to have a problem with.
At the same time, the emphasis on “he had five” in the fourth line suggests that he ate much more than his fill, perhaps annoying the siblings.
Plus, the speaker also says that he “followed us home,” not “we took him home.” This is meant to alleviate some of the responsibility from the siblings for what comes next.
Changed. We kept him in our room
Missing three days, four days, six, seven.
The poet uses enjambment in the transition between line four of the first stanza and line one of the second stanza. The speaker describes how the two bond with the young boy by teaching him their “special tongue,” or a unique way the two communicate.
This is meant to draw the reader’s attention to how the siblings lure him into a false sense of security and make him feel like their friend. He trusts them and, due to his age and innocence, will have no expectation of what’s going to come next.
While he stayed at their home, the TV news declared him missing. First for three days, then four, then up to seven. The removal of the word “days” in this line emphasizes how repetitive the process was. It was the same story every day, so much so that the speaker (who has no regard for Bobby’s safety) couldn’t be bothered to spend much time describing the situation. At the same time, this also emphasizes how quickly the days are passing. The story is gaining a lot of traction in the news, and the investigation is, without a doubt, ramping up.
On the last day at ninety degrees Fahrenheit,
And some ugly nosy Parker looked
The speaker reveals in the third stanza that their time with Bobby is coming to an end. It was the last day the two spent together, and it was 90 degrees Fahrenheit or 32 degrees Celsius, a particularly hot summer day. This is meant to connect to the pressure that’s heating up on the siblings, and their kidnapping is about to come to an end.
There is a clearly threatening tone in these lines as the speaker describes how they had “warned” Bobby Baxter not to look out the window, much less draw the attention of anyone on the street. The use of consonance in these lines, with “Bad Bobby,” is quite effective and foreboding. It should also remind readers of a child’s voice. This continues into the next lines when the speaker describes a “some ugly nosy Parker” seeing the young boy in their window.
Up, some pain-in-the neck village golfer,
Our mum there in her brassiere,
Things change for the siblings in the next lines as the speaker is forced to describe how their ploy ended. The “Parker” was “some pain-in-the-neck village golfer.” He called “999,” something the speaker mocks by connecting it to the repetition of “Putt,” a repetitive action a golfer would take. These lines are darkly humorous and a great example of epizeuxis (seen through the way Kay usually removes necessary words).
It took only moments, it seems, for the policeman to arrive at the door. No one in the home was prepared, including the mother. She walked to the door in her underwear, which may surprise readers but seemed unsurprising to the siblings. This does indicate something about the environment that the twins are living in. Their mother may be less responsible than she should be and has not created an environment in which the two were raised to respect other people. This comes up again in the fifth stanza.
The loose language of gin, opening
calling us down, calling us down,
The mother is drunk as well, as the fifth stanza reveals. She’s not happy to see a police officer at her door and makes her opinion of their presence very clear. She’s furious, as furious Kay writes, as a “bird” or a “seagull’s fury.” This is a very vague allusion to a type of fighter plane in Britain. She calls to the girls, asking them to come downstairs and answer the policeman’s presence.
Hannah and Helen. Never Helen and Hannah,
gingham dress, its pink and green squares.
The two girls are named in the sixth stanza, “Hannah and Helen.” The speaker describes how “Hannah” always comes before “Helen” when their mother speaks to them.
They’re wearing a schoolgirl’s uniform, which should make them look innocent, especially in comparison to the charge of kidnapping.
The poet describes the shoes as “shining like mirrors,” a very clear simile and example of juxtaposition. There is nothing truthful about them, particularly the image of innocence that they’re presenting.
Our jet black hair parted in the same centre;
‘Have you seen this boy?’
The poet reemphasizes her image of the girls as the same or similar people. They have the same clothes, attitude, and hair “parted in the same centre.” They are “well spoken” and very good at manipulating those around them. No one, including anyone they’re ever gone to school with, would expect them to be capable of what they’ve done.
The policeman asks the two if they’ve seen “this boy” and holds up a picture of Bobby Baxter. The twins answer in the eighth and final stanza.
‘No Sir,’ We said together. Pause ‘No Sir.’
wasn’t found till five days later.
The twins tell the policeman that “No Sir,” they have not seen the boy, but the policemen go into the house and search their room anyway. The poet uses a plosive “B” sound in these lines with the repetition of “B” in “Bobby,” “Baxter,” and “beautiful,” among other words.
The poem ends ambiguously. The child wasn’t found till “five days later.” It’s not clear whether or not the child was found alive or dead. Readers are meant to be left questioning the lengths that the girls would go to in this situation.
The tone is deceiving. The speaker is cunning and deceitful, going as far as to lie to the authorities about Bobby Baxter. There is a point where the tone becomes quite angry as well, as the speaker reminds readers that Bobby was “warned” about looking outside.
Readers are meant to be unsure of what happened to Bobby at the end of this poem. Perhaps, the police found him alive, or perhaps the twins killed the child as the child offenders in the famous true crime case that Kay may have been inspired by.
The purpose is to ask readers to question at what age a child becomes criminally responsible for their actions. When a young child, as young as ten even, commits a kidnapping or murder, who is to blame? Should they be tried as an adult, or should the parents be held responsible to a degree as well?
Readers could interpret a couple of different messages from this poem. First, that age doesn’t necessarily matter when it comes to the commission of a crime, and second, parenting or the “nurture” side of nature vs. nurture can be incredibly impactful.
Understanding who the speaker is in this poem is critical for figuring out what’s going on in the text. Their identity gets clearer as the poem progresses, but it’s not until the final stanzas that the fact that the speaker is a young school girl who, along with her twin sister, kidnapped and perhaps murdered a young boy.
If you enjoyed ‘Pork Pies,’ you should also consider reading some other Jackie Kay poems. For example:
- ‘Got You’ – is a poem about sibling jealousy and the strength of sisterhood. It was likely inspired by Kay’s youth and relationship with her own sister.
- ‘Darling’ – describes a woman’s death on a beautiful summer day and her close friend’s reaction. The two events are juxtaposed to a startling degree.
- ‘Dusting The Phone’ – contains a woman’s monologue as she yearns for a single phone call from the man she loves.
- ‘My Grandmother’s Houses’ – a thoughtful recollection of a young speaker’s relationship with her grandmother and what happened after her grandmother had to move to a new home.