Read the complete analysis of Compound Fracture by Jackie Kay; a poem that explores the theme of identity and the struggle to find one’s place in the world. The speaker describes the experience of being a mixed-race individual, feeling like they are constantly caught between two worlds and never fully belonging in either. The poem also touches on the idea of societal expectations and the pressure to conform to certain standards. Ultimately, the poem highlights the complexity of identity and the challenges of navigating the intersections of race, culture, and society.
after the bone came through my skin –
my mother`s voice split open
right into my ear, saying my name,
and then saying her own, on a phone not there;
(Full poem unable to be reproduced due to copyright restrictions)
- Compound fracture – a medical condition where a broken bone pierces the skin, causing an open wound and increasing the risk of infection.
- Casualty – a place where people receive medical treatment, especially in emergencies.
- Bulging – protruding or swelling outward.
- Terse – abrupt or brief in speech or expression.
- Hailstones – small, hard balls of ice that fall from the sky during a hailstorm.
- Pelting – striking or hitting something or someone repeatedly and forcefully with a barrage of objects.
- Starched – treated with starch to stiffen and strengthen the fabric.
- Regiment cap – a type of military hat worn by soldiers as part of their uniform.
- Sardonic – a type of humour that is disdainful, mocking, and sarcastic, often with a bitter or scornful undertone.
|TASK: Have you ever broken a bone, or had a medical emergency? Write a few lines about your own memory of the experience.|
STORY + SUMMARY
That day, when my bone broke through my skin, my mother’s voice broke in my ear. She called my name and then hers as if speaking on a phone that was not there. Her voice sounded strange and distant, as if she was not herself.
In desperation, I cried out for my mother, who was in the room next to me – crying out for me too. But a nurse entered the room, barking orders at me with cold, unfeeling eyes. She demanded that I close my “thick” lips or, I’d be denied a visit from my mother.
I struggled to close every button on my bottom lip, all the way down to where my injury lay. It was then that I fully understood the nurse’s words and noticed her starched white uniform, her tightly closed mouth, and her polished black shoes. Her words felt like a whip to my already agonising body.
Meanwhile, my mother remained in another world, oblivious to my anguish, sipping sweet tea to recover from the shock. All I yearned for was her soothing lips and tender love.
SPEAKER + VOICE
The first-person speaker describes a brutal episode in the hospital after going through a traumatic medical emergency, where she breaks a bone that punctures her skin. She is in immense pain, and her mother’s voice calling out to her intensifies the fear and panic of the moment. As a child, she is also acutely aware of her surroundings and the people present, particularly the nurse who treats her cruelly and demands that she stop screaming. Her voice is raw and emotional, conveying the intense pain and fear she experienced during the ordeal.
- Personification – “the walls come in” – the poet’s use of personification, portraying the walls as if they were human and pressing down on the speaker, stresses the feeling of claustrophobia. This sensation adds to the overall feeling of panic present throughout the poem, which contributes to its powerful emotional impact.
- Metonymy – “white casualty” – Kay uses metonymy to refer to the emergency room in the hospital as a reflection of the entire medical system. But the noun “casualty” is also used to describe the patients who are brought to the emergency room.
- Hyperbole – “her eyes bulging with cruelty” – this hyperbole emphasises the nurse’s harshness and adds to the overall sense of tension in the poem. By exaggerating the nurse’s behaviour, the speaker highlights the overwhelming and terrifying nature of her experience and underscores the importance of human kindness and compassion in moments of crisis.
- Simile – “her voice hailstones pelting” – this simile compares the nurse’s harsh voice to hailstones, accentuating the pain and discomfort that the speaker is feeling.
- Sibilance – “taking sips of sweet tea for shock” – the repetition of the “s” sound in “sips” and “sweet” adds a soothing and comforting quality to the mother’s actions, which stands in contrast to the severity of the nurse’s behaviour earlier in the poem.
- Irony – the phrase “that sardonic tongue; that regiment cap” is ironic because it suggests that the nurse is more concerned with maintaining an appearance of authority than providing comfort and care to the patient. The term “sardonic” implies a mocking or scornful attitude, which is not appropriate in a medical setting where patients are vulnerable. Similarly, the image of the “regiment cap” suggests a rigid, military-style approach to care, which is not suitable for the needs of someone in pain.
- Metaphor – “poisoned apple” – the poisoned apple appears in fairy tales such as Snow White, where it represents a deceptive and harmful object that can cause great harm. In the context of the poem, the metaphor suggests that the injury has a similar power to harm the speaker’s life.
- Anaphora – “Now Now Now” – the repetition of the adverbial “Now” in the poem stresses the demanding tone of the nurse who commands the speaker to stop screaming. This adds to the feeling of cruelty in the scene.
STRUCTURE + FORM
- Form – the use of free verse allows the poet to explore the speaker’s experience in a more personal and intimate way. Without the constraints of a traditional form, the poet can experiment with language and structure to create a unique and impactful portrayal of trauma and its effects.
- Caesura – throughout the poem, Kay employs caesurae to create a breathless effect and to underline the urgency of the situation, as seen in the break between “not herself” and “using a strange tone.”
- Punctuation – the poet employs ellipses and dashes to convey pauses and breaks in the poem, highlighting the speaker’s difficulty in expressing her experience.
- Sentence structure – featuring several fragmented sentences, such as “It is her” and “Whips,” the poem reflects the speaker’s state of mind and the disjointed nature of her memories.
- Enjambment – Kay uses long, complex sentences that extend over two or more lines to mimic natural speaking and suggest the rapid flow of thoughts in the speaker’s mind as she recalls the traumatic event.
Jackie Kay is a Scottish poet and novelist who was born in Edinburgh in 1961. Kay is known for her exploration of identity, particularly concerning race, gender, and sexuality, and her work often draws on her own experiences as a mixed-race woman. In addition to her poetry, she has published several novels and memoirs, including “Trumpet” and “Red Dust Road.” In 2016, she was appointed as the Scottish Makar (national poet), becoming the first Black person and LGBTQ+ person to hold it.
The poem “Compound Fracture” was published in Kay’s 1993 collection “Other Lovers.” It explores the aftermath of a traumatic injury, with the speaker struggling to cope with the pain and fear of her experience. The poem draws on Kay’s experiences of breaking her leg as a child and the subsequent hospitalisation and treatment.
|TASK: Research the symbol of ‘poisoned apples’ in fairytales and folklore. Why do you think Kay uses this motif in her poem?|
Those who should offer relief are not always able or willing to do it – the speaker is in a state of pain and distress after breaking her leg, and she feels helpless as she is subjected to the callousness of the hospital staff. This attitude reflects the wider power dynamics of society, where those in positions of authority often have control over the lives of others, and the marginalised and vulnerable are at risk of being mistreated or neglected. Her mother, too, seems distant and broken – as if her own shock prevents her from providing the support and relief that the child needs at this moment.
Protocols often work as an excuse for the lack of human sympathy – the speaker is physically separated from her mother, who is in another room, and the nurse who is supposed to be caring for them is cold and unsympathetic. This sense of detachment is heightened by the clinical environment of the hospital, which is portrayed as a sterile, lifeless space that is indifferent to human suffering. The attitude reflects the feeling of alienation that many people experience in modern society, where technology and bureaucracy have led to distance and disconnection between people.
The memory of a traumatic event can follow you for years – the speaker’s vulnerability reflects the aftermath of the trauma she experienced, and her memories of the event still linger, haunting them. Through the poem, it is implied that traumatic experiences can significantly affect a person’s emotional well-being and ability to maintain healthy relationships with others.
TASK: Pick two of the themes below, make a mind map and add four separate quotations that relate to it. Make short notes of analysis, explaining how and why each one relates to your theme. What, in your opinion, is the poet’s final message or statement about each theme that you chose?
- Power dynamics
- Communication breakdown
- Loss of control
- Compare and contrast the speaker’s mother and the nurse. What are some key differences between these two characters? How do their attitudes and actions affect the speaker’s experience in the hospital?
- Reflect on your own experiences with hospitals or medical care. Write a short poem or short story about your experience.
- How does the speaker’s experience of trauma affect her relationships with others?
- Explore how the metaphor of the poisoned apple relates to the theme of betrayal in the poem.
- Discuss the themes of trauma, vulnerability, and pain in “Compound Fracture”, exploring how the speaker’s experience reflects the impact of traumatic events on individuals.
- In what ways could the title ‘Compound Fracture’ be considered symbolic or metaphorical? Explore this notion with reference to the speaker’s relationships with the adults in the poem.
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