While much of the poem is ambiguous and sad, there are comedic moments that lighten the reader’s overall experience. Readers may notice that Kay uses a very specific semantic field in this poem. Words like “disintegrate,” “crumble,” “breaking,” “whirl,” “swirl,” “smash,” and “crash” all appear within the poem ‘Rubble.’ This suggests the confusion that the speaker is experiencing. It also suggests the aftermath of something terrible (which is also reflected in the title).
‘Rubble’ by Jackie Kay is a sad poem that effectively conveys the way someone is losing control over their mind.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how they lost hold of a specific thought they had. This leads them into a longer discussion of how their home, both within their mind and physically, is falling apart. They have trouble with thoughts and memories.
No matter where they turn, they see something in their life that makes them feel worse about the situation. The poem concludes with the speaker suggesting that, above anything, they would like to have someone in their life who doesn’t make them feel crazy.
The poem contends with the difficult themes of despair and mental decline. The speaker is someone suffering from mental health problems and struggling not to give into despair or give up on themselves. They fight to maintain a hold on their day-to-day life, but they feel it slipping away from them, just as their thoughts and ideas fall away and become impossible to regain.
Structure and Form
‘Rubble’ by Jackie Kay is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of eight lines, known as octets. The poem does not use a specific rhyme scheme. The lines end with unrhymed words, like “head,” “mind,” “crash,” and “or” in the first stanza. The poet does use a few examples of half-rhyme, for instance, “playing” and “breaking” at the end of stanza one.” There are also examples of internal rhyme, like “remember” and “cucumber” in the middle of line four of stanza two.
Kay employs a few different literary devices in this poem. They include:
- Enjambment: seen through the transitions the poet creates between lines. For instance, between lines one and two of stanza two. This literary device is also seen in the transition between lines four and five of stanza one.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “gone” and “grab” in line two of stanza one, as well as “house” and “head” in line five of stanza two.
- Repetition: the use of the same literary device multiple times. For example, “somebody” in stanza three. It appears six times.
- Consonance: the use of the same consonant sound in close succession. For example, the “r” sound in “crumble / and disintegrate and disappear. Cucumber for.” Another great example is “dear old bed” in line one of the third stanza.
What was the thought that I just had in my head?
the broken heart. The world outside is breaking
The first line of the poem immediately conveys the confusion that the speaker experiences and expresses throughout the text. The speaker is trying to bring to mind a thought she just experienced and lost. It’s gone, but she wants to grab it back.
The next lines are more confusing as the speaker tries to bring to mind the thought she just had. The language is jumbled and jarring. The poet uses words like “smash and crash” as well as “inconsequential,” “worthy,” and “crucial.” All of these descriptions make it hard for readers to pin down what the speaker is feeling or what thought it is that they just lost.
There is also a confusing allusion in lines five and six of this stanza. The poet rights, “something not worthy of the red admiral / I just saw on the grass.” This is a very specific allusion to a type of butterfly. She’s wondering if her thoughts are “worthy” of a butterfly or something beautiful and gentle. But Kay intentionally keeps back many of the details readers need to figure out what the speaker is thinking. Readers are meant to be nearly as confused as the speaker is.
The poet’s use of “Maybe that:” and “pull yourself together, maybe?” in the next stanza is meant to suggest ways that the speaker is trying to sort their thoughts out. But, these moments of decision are quickly overrun by more images and phrases that make them hard to decipher.
apart. Pull yourself together, maybe? Something
like that. I can’t be sure. Thoughts crumble
Goodness – it’s all mess and clutter and rubble
Kay’s skill with language makes the speaker’s fragmented thoughts quite effective in these next lines. The sentence structure is degrading and becoming harder to understand. For example, the speaker’s reminder to get a cucumber and her repetitive depiction of her own swirling, whirling, and flooded mind. The stanza ends with the speaker saying that her brain and her life are “all mess and clutter and rubble.” They can’t remember what they were thinking or put their life in order.
The speaker mentions both their mind and home. The clutter of their mind is spilling out into the physical world. At the same time, these images are meant to represent how important mental health is. The mind is our true home, and when it is disordered, it is very hard to navigate.
The poet’s use of onomatopoeia in these lines (seen through the active verbs “spill” and “swirl” (among others) helps bring the speaker’s distress into view.
in my soft head. All I want is the dear old bed.
Downstairs – damp proof men and the radio blarinq.
Somebody what? Somebody who? Dear oh dear, somebody you
The speaker depicts themselves as “soft,” unintelligent, or perhaps crazy. The speaker returns to a desire for home and a home that she used to have. Now, her life is entirely chaotic and impossible to relax in. But, the “dear old bed” she used to have was different.
No matter where she goes, there are sounds that make it hard for her to focus. She can’t find peace anywhere because wherever she turns, there is something to be fixed or organized.
There is a turn in the poem in this final stanza as Kay’s speaker says that they would like to have “somebody kind” who would support them when they were struggling with their mental health as they are now. The fact that they are longing for someone is another revelation the reader can make about the speaker’s life. They are alone or at least feel alone.
The poem ends with a sad repetition of the same kind of confusion seen in other parts of the poem. As soon as the thought passes, it becomes confusing to regain. The speaker struggles to put into words what they are just thinking.
The last phrase of the poem, “Dear oh dear, somebody you,” suggests that there was someone who cared for the speaker as they wanted for a time. But that person is gone now. There are no details to reveal why the two are separated and if it’s ever possible for them to be reunited.
The tone is sad and colloquial, with the speaker using confusing language that comes across as conversational. The poet intentionally made this poem confusing and hard to understand in an effort to convey someone’s state of mind.
The purpose is to convey an individual’s struggle with mental health and how difficult it can be to hold on to one’s thoughts and ideas when life feels like it’s falling apart. The poem also emphasizes how important support from a loving partner or family member can be to someone struggling with mental health issues.
The speaker is unknown. Their gender, age, and name are not included in the poem, nor are any of the specific details about their situation. By intentionally keeping this information out of the poem, Kay is helping readers feel just a bit of what this individual feels daily.
The poem ‘Rubble’ by Jackie Kay is about someone’s struggle with mental health and inability to regain control over their mind. They fight to keep their thoughts in check but lose them almost as soon as they have them.
If you enjoyed this poem, you should also consider reading some other Jackie Kay poems. For example:
- ‘Pork Pies’ – is a frightening poem about two sisters murdering a young boy.
- ‘In the Seventh Year’ – depicts a colorful and ever-changing relationship.
- ‘Love Nest’ – is suggestive of the troubles that same-sex couples face in daily life.