This poem was published in Severe Gale 8 published in 1991. It is one of a few poems from this collection that contends with social issues and real-world events. This poem describes a woman who, after losing her baby, also loses her grip on reality and chooses to kidnap someone else’s child. She spends most of ‘The Underground Baby Case’ trying to convince herself, one way or another, that she did the right thing.
Explore The Underground Baby Case
‘The Underground Baby Case’ by Jackie Kay is a shocking and interesting poem told from the perspective of a woman who stole a baby.
In the first part of the poem, the speaker begins by describing a train ride during which she watched a mother leave her child behind accidentally. She grabbed the child up and immediately decided to keep him. No one noticed something that helped solidify the woman’s feelings that she’d done the right thing. Of course, the child’s mother searches desperately for him.
But, the speaker is staying away from her, the outside world, and the news. She says she’ll tell the boy, who she’s named Peter, what happened eventually, but it’s unclear if that’s true or not. The poem ends with the speaker imagining what would happen if she went to visit the mother and then revealing that she lost a baby herself, a little girl.
The main theme of this poem is motherhood and mental instability. The speaker is a mother who, due to unknown circumstances, lost her child. In a moment of desperation, she took another child off the Underground and determined to raise him as her own. This is something that she continually tries to reconcile. She knows that she did something terrible, but she also feels like she’s a better mother to the child than his own mother.
Structure and Form
‘The Underground Baby Case’ by Jackie Kay is a six-part poem that is divided into sections with numbers. The poet usually uses one stanza per section but chooses in some sections, specifically one and five, to use multiple stanzas. The lines are written in free verse, meaning that the poet did not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The stanzas also vary greatly in length. The shortest is one line long, and the longest is twelve lines.
Throughout ‘The Underground Baby Case,’ the poet uses several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Simile: a comparison between two things using “like” or “as.” For example, “Skin like the sea at night.”
- Metaphor: a comparison between two things that don’t use “like” or “as.” For instance, “His lips are a blueberry pie.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “digestives, disposables / disprin.”
- Consonance: the use of the same consonant sound in multiple words in a line. These do not have to be next to one another. For example, “sing the song sixpence.”
- Enjambment: a transition between two lines that cut off a phrase. For example, “There was a couple of things / I wanted to remember.”
Stanzas One and Two
There was a couple of things
I wanted to remember
We were in like sardines.
The poet begins the piece with one short stanza of two lines. The poem is written in the past tense, meaning that the speaker is looking back on something she previously experienced. She takes a dismissive and informal tone in these lines, explaining what happened without much emotion.
The speaker describes how she was on the underground subway line in London, specifically on the Victoria Line, when she saw a mother get off the train at Kings Cross. She was carrying a great deal, including a buggy and her shopping, and the female speaker watched as the train doors closed behind her. She, and all the other passengers, were tightly packed on the train like sardines (an example of simile).
The speaker is detached from the events she’s describing, noting the woman’s departure from the train as something very normal and unemotional.
And I did a terrible thing.
I picked up the little boy and held him to my chest.
Next stop. I didn’t get off.
The train flew like a plane.
Nobody noticed. Nobody said anything.
The line “And I did a terrible thing” is shocking after the first two stanzas with their mundane details. The line also reveals, despite the speaker’s seeming distance from emotion, that she knows what she did is wrong.
Although she doesn’t explain it exactly, it becomes clear quite quickly that the woman who got off the train accidentally left behind her young child. She picked him up and held him to her chest and immediately called herself “mummy” and decided to keep him. The repetition in the lines of this stanza emphasizes the importance of this memory. This is one of the main things she wanted to remember.
She told the young boy, who was very likely upset by the absence of his real mother that there was nothing for him to worry about. She sang to him, the fact that is emphasized through the inclusion of lyrics (to a Scottish nursery rhyme), and chose not to get off the train at the next stop in an effort to return the child to his mother. The train moved quickly without issue, and no one around her questioned the fact that she had this child.
This is something that likely made her feel quite empowered and as though she was meant to keep the young boy. She relays the facts of the situation quite clearly and a list like fashion. Again, she uses very little emotion in these lines, taking a detached tone.
And he is a black boy
His lips are a blueberry pie.
The fourth stanza of ‘The Underground Baby Case‘ tells readers more about what the child looks like. He was a black boy, a young child the speaker declares as “beautiful.” It’s clear she admires the boy and cares for him. She uses lyrical, complementary examples of figurative language to describe his skin as the “sea at night” and his lips as “a blueberry pie.”
The consonance in these lines with the repetition of the “b” sound helps emphasize the beauty the speaker sees in the child, while the chosen examples of figurative language suggest that she’s soothed by his presence.
He is my boy now. My boy.
In the morning we eat porridge together,
Her with the dreadful long hair.
Her possession of the child is fully realized in the next line when the speaker says, “He is my boy now. My boy.” This leaves no room for interpretation or the possibility that she’d ever return the boy to his mother.
They eat together, he shares what she gives him, and she hides him when they go out, buried beneath her laundry. This suggests that, again, she knows she’s doing something wrong and that if anyone sees the boy and recognizes him that they’re likely to call the police, knowing that he’s missing.
The subtle description of him drinking from the “yellow cup” she bought him suggests that simple acts like this help her believe that the child feels at home with her and has no issue with what she’s done. It seems to be another way that the speaker is trying to convince herself that she is actually in the right (as she did when she said that no one on the train saw her pick the child up and take him).
The final part of this stanza shows the two bonding as she tells him stories at night, making them up from stories she’s heard bits and pieces of as well as “Her with the dreadful long hair.” This is a reference to the child’s true mother. The speaker knows nothing and only has a memory of this woman’s long hair. To the speaker, the child’s true mother represents the end of the happiness and peace the young, Black boy has brought her. The mother would take him back and, in the speaker’s mind, ruin her life.
Today when Peter had fallen asleep
Picked me like you pick a disciple.
Without directly stating it, the speaker reveals that she named the boy Peter. It was the first time in a while that she’d left home or read a newspaper and it inspired her to think about how (in her confused mind) how the boy’s mother gave him to her.
She is convincing herself that the mother must not have wanted the child and left him on purpose, having followed the speaker and chosen her to take care of him. This is, of course, not true but it does reveal a great deal about the lengths the speaker is willing to go to convince herself that what she’s doing is okay.
BABY KOFI MISSING 6 WEEKS
for fear she will appear,
her long ropes of hair.
The fourth part of ‘The Underground Baby Case‘ reveals that the child’s true name is Kofi and that now six weeks have passed since the speaker took him from the train. The passage of time is fuzzy for the speaker since she’s been inside for almost all of the last few weeks.
She’s made sure to hold onto the picture of him from the newspaper so that when he’s older, she can show him and help him understand why she took him. The speaker also admits that she hasn’t watched TV lately either for fear that she’ll see the “dreadful” mother on the screen with her “long ropes of hair.” The use of the word “rope” instead of braid or dreadlock very clearly shows how different the speaker feels the mother is from her.
I would arrive at her house.
Inside: the empty plates at the table,
his toys scattered everywhere like memories.
When the speaker considers what she would do if she went to go visit the child’s mother (this is an action that the woman seems unlikely ever to take). She uses repetition, specifically seem to her use of anaphora, to describe going into the home with a basket of fruit and seeing the child’s toy scattered all over the floor “like memories.” He is only a memory there, she suggests, one that the speaker very much hopes the mother will forget.
Stanzas Two and Three
I would climb up her hair.
trying to put her together again.
The speaker feels so confident in her choice that in this fantasy world, she says she would have no problem whispering in the mother’s ear that “Peter / is all right” and that he loves her. This is unlikely to bring the mother any sort of comfort.
The final stanza of this part suggests the speaker, as the next stanza reveals, knows something about losing a child. She’s gone through it before and would help the mother try to put herself together again “bone by bone.” Of course, this also benefits the speaker as if the mother has recovered from her grief, and she is less likely to continue searching for the child.
There was a couple of things
the earth later, soft as a robin’s breast,
eating my tiny baby up.
The final stanza of the poem brings in the two-line couplet from the first stanza. The speaker really uses the phrase, “there was a couple of things I wanted to remember.” One of these things was to get diapers or nappies (an example of the speaker’s nonchalance), as well as some very specific details about the speaker’s own child who passed away.
She doesn’t remember the date her child was born but doesn’t remember the day and autumn when she passed away. This is connected to a black car in the rain at the child’s funeral and the earth eating the child up. The alliteration in these lines mimics the sound of the rain hitting the black car.
The speaker describes her child as a tiny baby, helpless to prevent what happened. This is meant to trigger the reader’s sympathy and help them understand, at least to an extent, why the speaker did what she did. She was desperate to fill the hole in her heart and was not, and is still not, thinking straight.
The themes of this poem are motherhood, loss, and mental instability. The speaker has experienced the devastating loss-the death of her child. Without the proper care or counseling, she seems to have lost her grip on reality, stealing another woman’s baby from a train.
The purpose is to draw attention to two different issues in contemporary society. The first is mental instability and the lack of help for those who have experienced a loss, as well as passive racism, seen through the woman’s attempts to convince herself that the boy’s mother was unfit to raise him. She uses several racially triggering terms.
The speaker is unknown. They are only described through their own narration of what they did. They are a mother whose child died and who is very likely Caucasian. They are also likely Scottish (seen through the reference to Scottish nursery rhymes).
The poem was written in the late 1980s, prior to its inclusion in Kay’s The Adoption Papers. Specifically in the Severe Gale 8 section along with other poems about social issues.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Jackie Kay poems. For example:
- ‘The Same Note’ – is an inspiring poem that explores Kay’s love for the singer Bessie Smith.
- ‘In the Seventh Year’ – a lovely and complicated poem in which the speaker describes the nature of their relationship.
- ‘My Grandmother’ – a shocking poem in which a speaker describes the dualities in her grandmother’s personality.