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Jackie Kay on Arthur Roberts

The black Scottish First World War soldier who felt forgotten w


The Looks of Loss


He lost the party, or the party lost him;

And the list of losses came almost nightly.

How already he’d lost his smile, his grace.

How at night, or under the morning mist, he lost face.

How for miles he plodded making his list of losses.

He knew the faces of loss as intimately as his own.

He knew loss’s husky voice, its strange frown.

He knew the way its hair fell out; the way loss fell down.

He knew loss. He’d been in loss’s town.


And the next thing he was half lying against a wagon in the rain

And who knew where he came from, or to where he would go?

After the third Battle of Ypres, they were soon dispersed

And he kept that loss close lest he should ever forget.


He knew the colour of loss, its park benches

He knew the smell of loss took him to the trenches.

He knew the glaikit gazes, the lost sons’ faces

He knew loss was not choosy: it could pick out any one.

He knew it carried no watch; grief keeps a different clock,

That to loss the morning or evening were all the same

that he could find loss stock-still, lame.

Or that it could run behind in the rain.

He knew it could jog ahead in real time.

He knew loss’s game, its hiding places.

He knew he wasn’t the only one counting down.

He knew loss. He’d been in loss’s town.


He’d watched lost ships sail down the Clyde

And listened to the noises from childhood loss

The bells and the jingles and midnight owls.

And for years after the war, it seemed that all the losses

Followed him in their old dead boots

And the losses still to come walked ahead in their old dead boots

And everywhere around him was the thud of loss,

Heavy-footed with trench feet, thickly coated in mud.

Seeking the drowsy, the exhausted, the run-down.

He knew loss. He’d been in loss’s town.


Loss like the loss he felt when he waved goodbye to his mother,

like the loss he felt when he wrote to his father.

Loss like the limbo-loss between two cultures

Loss like the loss when you’re wiped out the picture.

Loss like the loss when somebody shouted black bastard

Loss like the loss when the lance corporal died at dinner.

Loss like the loss when he nearly crossed over.

Loss like love lost like lost loves

He knew loss. He didn’t need to write it down.

He’d been in loss’s old sad town.


Kay, J. (2011). Look of Loss. In Fiere (p. 27). Bloodaxe Books.





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