Jackie Kay

My Grandmother’s Houses by Jackie Kay

‘My Grandmother’s Houses’ by Jackie Kay is a thoughtful recollection of youth and a young speaker’s relationship with her eccentric grandmother, who is forced to move homes.

The poem is told from the poet’s perspective. Specifically, as she saw her grandmother when she was a young girl. The poet experienced her grandmother’s move and how much it upset her as well as all the day-to-day tasks her grandmother engaged in. Kay’s personal experiences fill this poem as they do in much of her poetry.

My Grandmother's Houses by Jackie Kay


Summary 

‘My Grandmother’s Houses’ by Jackie Kay conveys a young girl’s understanding of her grandmother’s two homes. 

The first part of the poem describes the speaker’s grandmother’s original tenement apartment. It was filled with newspapers from the grandmother’s lifetime, covering all of her possessions. They obscured the “new” items that she was given with souvenirs from the past. 

The grandmother is eventually forced to move to a new home in a high rise, where she’s unhappy. The rest of the poem focuses on the time that Kay, the young speaker, and her grandmother spent together. They went to clean houses and to the church, where their relationship was elaborated on.

You can read the full poem here

Theme

The main theme of ‘My Grandmother’s Houses‘ is old vs. new or the past vs. the present. The poet was interested in emphasizing the connection that she had with her grandmother and the way that her grandmother was forced to adapt to the new, ever-changing world. 

Structure and Form 

‘My Grandmother’s Houses’ by Jackie Kay is a three-part poem that is written in free verse. In total, there are six stanzas separated out among the three sections. The first has three, and the final two sections have two. Some stanzas are quite short, like the first stanza of the whole poem, which has two lines, each o which is an independent sentence. Other stanzas, like the first stanza of part III, are quite long. In this case, stanza one of section three is nineteen lines long. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:

  • Alliteration: the use of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “mother moans.”
  • Caesura: a pause in the middle of a line of verse. This usually occurs due to the poet’s use of punctuation. For example, “a shiny new pin? Here is home” and “Does she use it. Does she even look at it.” Kay is known for using this device repetitively throughout her verse.
  • 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 of part II. 
  • Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses descriptive imagery that should inspire readers to imagine a scene in great detail. For example, “Chewing for ages over the front page, / her toffees sticking to her false teeth.”
  • Simile: a comparison between two things that uses “like” or “as.” For example, “The sideboard solid as a coffin.”


Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One 

She is on the second floor of a tenement.

From her front room window you see the cemetery.

The first stanza of ‘My Grandmother’s House is only two lines long. It’s the shortest of the whole poem and opens the three-part poem with her speaker describing where her grandmother lives. 

She’s on the second-floor tenement building, filled with low-income apartments, and from her window, you can see the “cemetery,” this speaker says. This starts the poem on a dark note, suggesting death is just around the corner. 

Stanza Two 

Her bedroom is my favourite: newspapers

(…)

in her bed all the print merges together.

Of the rooms in her grandmother’s tenement apartment, the speaker likes the bedroom the most. It’s filled with newspapers dating back to the First or Second World War. These newspapers are incredibly chaotic, covering every item in the room. 

The speaker describes the newspapers covering every “present” she’s been given her whole life. The clutter in the house makes the speaker’s mom, the grandmother’s daughter, not want to buy her anything. They know the grandmother won’t look at or use any of these gifts.

Some of the many things they’ve bought her include napkins, perfume, and tablecloths. These items are covered and wrapped in “stories of things I can’t understand.” 

Some of these stories include words like “conscientious objector,” which, to the speaker in her youth, means nothing but, to most readers, is very clearly definable as someone who, for moral reasons, refuses to fight in a war or conflict

When the speaker has to go to bed, she navigates over and around all of these newspaper-covered parcels, something she says is harder than the “school’s obstacle course.” From the bed, the various newspapers all merge together, representing the grandmother’s entire life laid out on the floor. 

Stanza Three 

When she gets the letter she is hopping mad.

(…)

her toffees sticking to her false teeth.

In the final stanza of part I, the speaker describes how things changed for her grandmother. She got a letter, likely telling her that she had to move out for an unknown reason. She doesn’t want to live anywhere new, she asserts. She’s happy in this home she saw herself living in for the rest of her life. It has “sideboard[s] solid as a coffin.”

Part II

Stanza One 


The new house is called a high rise.

(…)

a bit bit of hoch floating inside like a fish.

The new house the grandmother moved into is called a “high rise.” She lives on the twenty-fourth floor, and for the young speaker, the entire building is a playground. She knows her grandmother was upset to move there but is enjoying the new surroundings, even when she gets stuck in the elevator for an hour. 

Instead of a cemetery, which is both peaceful and dark, the speaker sees noisy kids outside the window (something that undoubtedly annoyed her grandmother). 

Stanza Two 

Till finally she gets to like the hot

(…)

until the next time God grabs me in Glasgow with Gran.

In the second stanza, the speaker describes how perfectly suitable the home was. But, it lacked much of the personality that the previous home had. She’s 70 years old now and is still feeling like she needs to get out into the world and do something. She goes and cleans other people’s houses, goes to church, and takes the speaker around “to strange place[s]” where she felt ghosts were sure to visit. 

The speaker and her grandmother are the only ones who believe in this sort of thing, she implies. The next few lines are brief and well-punctuated. She describes her grandmother’s actions (likely what she does every time she goes to church). 

The visit to the church is over after she has women “flapping over me like missionaries” until the next time she’s there visiting her grandmother, and “God grabs” her. The alliteration in this line makes it stand out from those around it. The poet uses “God,” “Glasgow,” and “Gran” in an effort to make these images stick in the reader’s head and emphasize how memorable these times were for the speaker.  

Part III 

Stanza One 

By the time I am seven we are almost the same height.

(…)

over a comic she slaps me. Sit up straight.

The first stanza of section III is the longest of the entire poem. She sees lines describing spending more time with her grandmother until she is seven years old. Her grandmother is very lively, although they are about the same height, and they spend time at the house she’s going to clean that day (a reference to the previous section).

The home is strange, confusing, and even alien-like the speaker suggests in these lines. She compares a piano to a “one-winged creature” using a similar in this stanza and describes how, despite the strange nature of the home, she does still end up bored. 

The speaker also describes an interaction with the woman who owned the home after she tried to play the piano and how that woman described her skin as the “colour of café au lait.” The speaker and her grandmother left home and started home, a walk which inspires the speaker to compare her grandmother to “the hunchback of Notre Dame,” another example of a simile. 

The only time the child speaker really seems to get in trouble with her grandmother is when she’s not sitting up straight while reading a comic. 

Stanza Two 

She is on the ground floor of a high rise.

(…)

screaming their way to the Royal Infirmary.

These lines seem to anticipate the grandmother’s death. She’s been forced into the modern world, something she never wanted, and the ambulances at the end of the poem suggest that she isn’t going to have lived this way for long.

FAQs

What symbolism is used in ‘My Grandmother’s Houses?’

The poet uses the grandmother’s original home, which was messy and filled with newspapers, to symbolize the past and how her grandmother wanted to live her life. The new home is entirely different and represents the present and everything the grandmother didn’t want in her life. 

Who is the speaker in ‘My Grandmother’s Houses?’ 

The speaker is Jackie Kay, a young girl describing her relationship with her eccentric grandmother. The two shared a lot of experiences but were also separated by generations. 

What is the theme of ‘My Grandmother’s Houses?’ 

The theme is old vs. young or the past vs. the present or future. The speaker is quite young in these three sections of verse and can still recognize how her grandmother stands out from the rest of the world. 

What is the tone of ‘My Grandmother’s Houses?’ 

The tone is loving and nostalgic. The speaker cares a great deal for her grandmother, despite the fact that they didn’t always see 100% eye to eye. She is looking back on her youth and remembering the time they spent together. 


Similar Poetry 

If you enjoyed this poem, you should also take a look at some other Jackie Kay poems. Some of her best are:  

  • Got You– is an interesting poem about sibling jealousy and the strength of sisterhood. The speaker is a discouraged child who believes her sister is superior to her in every way.
  • Dusting the Phone– focuses on a young woman who struggles while waiting for the man she loves to return her call.
  • Divorce– is a highly relatable poem that reminds readers how much adult problems impact children.
  • Darling– is a heartfelt poem based on the poet’s real-life experiences with a friend who passed away. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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