This poem was originally published in Off Colour in 1998. This collection is noteworthy in that it explores wellness and sickness. Kay’s examination of wellness includes physical illness and the worst parts of society.
Explore Love Nest
‘Love Nest’ by Jackie Kay uses memorable images and examples of figurative language to describe a couple’s infested home.
In the first part of the poem, the speaker begins by describing mice infesting the attic and them moving into the bedroom. A plague of flies follows, and then a whole army of wasps. In between, the speaker describes a thundering train, the arrival of the mythical Pied Piper, and allusions to contemporary serial killers.
You can listen to the full poem here.
The main themes of this poem are love and society. The poet uses an extended metaphor to depict the difficulties that same-sex couples experienced in the 80s and 90s and into today. She describes infestations of mice and bugs in a couple’s home and how it, at least for a time, seems to become more than they can contend with.
Structure and Form
‘Love Nest’ by Jackie Kay is a five-stanza poem that uses quatrains and quintains in the first few stanzas and then ends with a single line stanza. The poem is written in free verse as most of Jackie Kay’s poems are. This means that the lines do not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. They vary in length and end sounds.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something non-human with human characteristics. For example, the poet’s description of the mice as “cunning.”
- Simile: a comparison between two things that uses “like” or “as.” For example, “The Dalston trail thunders by like fury.”
- Caesura: a pause in the middle of a line of verse. This usually occurs due to the poet’s use of punctuation. For example, “Two thousand strong. An army in my study.”
- Metaphor: seen through the poet’s creative comparison between two things without using the words “like” or “as.” For example, the poet writes that the wasps were as “army.”
- Enjambment: occurs when a poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the second stanza.
- Imagery: the use of particularly effective descriptions that should inspire the reader to imagine a scene, feeling, experience, and more in great detail. For example, “Look for the eggs, tiny, white.”
The mice come first. In our bedroom
It is the first sign.
The first stanza begins with a suggestion of invasion. Mice enter the lovers’ bedroom. They’re the “first sign” that something is going wrong. The two hear their “cunning” scraping and skittering in the attic. They’ve moved from the upper part of the house, from where one can hear but not see them, into the bedroom, where they are a real issue. They’re invading a far more important and intimate space.
The word “cunning” in these lines is an example of personification, suggesting that an animal can have strictly human characteristics. The poet also uses sibilance in these lines with the words “scraping,” “scuttling,” and “skirting.”
The plague of flies is next. In our kitchen
‘Must be something big and rotten.
The second stanza begins “flies,” the next “plague” that influences the home and the love nest. The flies are the second stage of invading the lovers’ private places. But, they infest another area of the house beside the bedroom—the kitchen.
Readers should note the poet’s use of “our,” suggesting that they consider the home something shared between the two. Even though the kitchen isn’t quite as intimate a place, it’s still a shared area, something that belongs to the couple and that no one would want to be infested by an outside force, much less flies and mice.
The poet uses an example of juxtaposition in these lines in her description of the flies at the “bottom” of the house rather than the top. The threats are coming from all sides. There is more sibilance in these lines with the words “sick” and “thick,” a visceral juxtaposition when one considers that these flies were where food is cooked. It’s only October, the speaker adds, suggesting that the autumn is ongoing but that winter, traditionally the darkest season of the year, is still on the way.
There is an example of an allusion in these lines with the poet’s reference to the “Pied piper.” This refers to a traditional story, the ‘Pied Piper of Hamelin’ from Germany, based on a true story of a criminal who abducted children. The Piper calls, using the phrase, “Must be something big and rotten.” His voice continues into the third stanza.
Look for the eggs, tiny, white.’
The Dalston train thunders by like fury
The Piper describes the eggs in the third stanza, continuing the spine-chilling image of what’s going on in this home. It’s also possible that these eggs have an even darker connotation, that they’re related to a dead body.
The next line is unusual and requires an understanding of a real-life event happening around the time the poem was published. The poet describes this as the “time of the Wests.” This is an allusion to a pair of serial killers, Fred and Rose West, who were arrested in the mid-1990s and are thought to have killed around 10 people.
It’s likely that the poet had this event on her mind and was inspired by the terror of their murders in the way this poem plays out.
In this stanza, the poet also includes the reader. She uses the second-person pronoun “you” and writes that “you” ask, “Do you mean a body?” This makes the whole situation more ambiguous and confusing.
There is another allusion in these lines to the Dalston Train. Although seemingly mundane, the train does have a fairly dark history. This includes the death of a young child in a bathroom.
The stanza ends with a simile describing the train’s sound as furious thunder. This conveys a sense of anger and relates to the situation the lovers have found themselves in.
At the bottom of our town garden.
‘Vicious bastards,’ his eyes gleam with job satisfaction.
The fourth stanza picks up where the third left off. The speaker describes the train down at the bottom of “our town garden” and the wasps that infiltrate their home. They’re a much bigger issue than the mice or flies. But, the speaker doesn’t seem overly shocked by their arrival. She may have been expecting the next blow and knew that it was going to be worse than the previous. There are so many wasps and an entire army that the lovers don’t feel like they can fight against them.
Often, this entire poem is related to queer theory and, through images like the entire army against the lovers, suggests that the world is working against them. It does not create an environment where it’s easy for their relationship to flourish.
The wasps and the other invading creatures reach every part of their home or their relationship, even the most intimate. The Piper returns to the poem in these final lines and uses the words “Vicious bastards.” It’s unclear here whether or not the Piper is talking about the flies, mice, and wasps or the people (society at large) they represent.
This is our love nest. I see you, looking at me.
The final stanza is a single, stand-alone sentence. The line feels quite cynical after everything that’s come before it. The life they are living is what they have to endure if they want to spend their lives together. Society makes their relationship incredibly difficult.
The theme is love and relationships and how society considers same-sex relationships. The poem was inspired by the poet’s experience in same-sex relationships in Scotland in the 80s and 90s.
The message is that society does whatever it can, actively and passively, to make the lives of same-sex couples difficult. Through popular opinion, snide comments, policies, and more, the private lives and personal spaces couples cherish as steadily infested.
The tone is direct and unemotional. This is even though what the speaker is describing is quite traumatic. She seems to be unsurprised by the arrival of these various plagues, particularly the wasps, in the final two stanzas.
The speaker is unknown. But, the poem was inspired by Kay’s experiences in same-sex relationships. She likely drew inspiration from the ways she and her partners were regarded during this period and into today.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Jackie Kay poems. For example:
- ‘Brendon Gallacher’ – is one of the many Jackie Kay poems that was inspired by the poet’s life and experiences.
- ‘Got You’ – presents readers with a discouraged child who believes her sister is superior to her in every way.
- ‘Dusting the Phone’ – contains the words of a young woman hoping to get a phone call from the man she’s in love with.
- ‘Divorce’ – emphasizes the unexpected ways children are impacted by the issues their parents have.