‘My Rival’s House’ by Liz Lochhead is a six stanza poem, containing a total of thirty-nine lines. The stanzas are of different lengths, ranging from four lines in the sixth stanza, up to eleven in the third. The poem does not conform to one specific pattern of rhyme, rather the stanzas follow their own patterns that change frequently. For example, the second stanza rhymes AABBCC while the fourth stanza, with different end sounds, rhymes AAABBCC. They are similar, but not the same.
Summary of My Rival’s House
The poem begins with the speaker introducing her rival to the reader. This person has a very polished surface. Their body has been worked and curated with nails and capped teeth. At the same time, and much more impressively, this woman’s home is a treasure trove of expensive items. The parquet floor is one of the most prominent. It is well-guarded.
Towards the end of the piece, it is revealed that the speaker is in a relationship with her rival’s son. This is the only reason she has to thank her for anything. Even this doesn’t go well as the mother is so controlling her son is never going to be free of her. The speaker is resigned to this fact, and to the lack of respect or acceptance she gets.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of My Rival’s House
is peopled with many surfaces.
Tables polished clear enough to see distortions in.
When first beginning this poem the lack of capitalization at the beginning and the fact that the first word of the poem is “is” can be confusing. After taking a moment to consider what this portion of the sentence is saying, it becomes clear that the title is meant to start the poem. So really the first line would read, “My Rival’s House is peopled with many surfaces.”
The surfaces that the speaker is referring to are numerous. First, they begin as the physical top layer of the woman’s house. There are “velvet couches” and,
Tables polished clear enough to see distortions in.
They are so shiny that one can see bits of their own reflection in the wood varnish. Everything looks and feels expensive.It is clear from the beginning that this is a world the speaker is not used to.
We take our shoes off at her door,
shuffle stocking-soled, tiptoe – the parquet floor
cover, drawn shade,
won’t let the surface colour fade.
In the second stanza, she moves away from the simple surfaces to parts of the rest of the house. The speaker notes how at the door,
We take our shoes off […]
shuffle stocking-soled, tiptoe…
The “we” she is referring to is unclear at this point. They all take their shoes off in order to not mess up the “parquet floor.” It is an important sign of wealth and the desire to burn money on luxuries. It also speaks to misplaced attention, a problem that comes up again at the end of the poem.
The speaker describes the floor as “beautiful” and as something that must “be protected.” Line three is enjambed, meaning that it cuts off before one’s natural stopping point in a phrase. It forces the reader down to line four to finish the sentence. This technique puts extra emphasis on the two words, “be protected.” The speaker’s disdain for her rival’s way of life is clear. She does not actually feel that something as useless as parquet flooring should take up so much of one’s consciousness while moving through the world.
Silver sugar-tongs and silver salver,
my rival serves us tea.
She glosses over him and me.
will fight, fight foul for her survival.
Deferential, daughterly, I sip
and thank her nicely for each bitter cup.
The third stanza is the longest of ‘My Rival’s House.’ In it, the speaker goes through a number of other things she can find sitting around the house. Two items are the silver sugar tongs and salver.
At this point that another character is introduced into ‘My Rival’s House,’ a man. Perhaps this is a partner or friend visiting alongside the speaker. Or, without further clarification, the man could be a member of the rival’s household. This is all cleared up in the next stanzas.
Either way, while the rival moves she “glosses over him and” the speaker. The woman is attempting to better the speaker, to clear up the “edges” that she knows she has. This is clearly offensive. At the same time, she knows that her rival “thinks she means [the speaker] well.”
There is an interesting turn in the poem here. The rival thinks she can see beneath the speaker’s surface into a part of her that needs improvement. At the same time, the speaker looks deeper into her rival and sees what is there beneath the surface. It is squirming as if it is independently alive. There is something on the inside that does not match the polished surface of this woman.
The next lines of ‘My Rival’s House’ emphasize how curated this woman really is. She has “polished” nails and capped teeth. The rival is ready to “fight foul for her survival.” The speaker knows this, so she sits and drinks her tea. She is “deferential” to this woman.
And I have much to thank her for.
This son she bore –
And oh how close
this family that furnishes my rival’s place.
It is in stanza four that the relationship between the rival and the speaker is made clear. The speaker is married to her rival’s son, or is at least in a committed relationship with him. The mother is the difficult woman she is having a hard time growing used to.
The speaker wants to make sure that she addresses all sides of this relationships so she notes that she has,
[…] much to thank her for.
This son she bore—
This is a reference to the speaker’s partner who is the man sitting next to her. The use of the dashes in these lines shows pauses in the speaker’s speech. It is as if she is reconsidering her position in relation to his mother. Lochhead uses repetition in these lines in order to emphasize how impossible it seems that the son will ever be free of his family.
The “sour potluck family” he comes from is always there. They are a mix of unfortunate personalities. The speaker is unable to feel as gracious as she should to this woman for giving birth to her partner. This is due to the competitiveness that has always existed between them. The speaker and the mother are both seeking the son’s love.
In the last lines, the speaker takes note of the fact that the family is “close.” This is a reference to the physical and emotional space the family members take up in both of their lives. They are suffocating the couple, and perhaps doing damage to the relationship.
Lady of the house.
She has taken even this from me.
The speaker refocuses herself on the “Lady of the house” in the fifth stanza. These lines show derision, but also emphasize the dominant role the mother takes in the household. She is clearly in charge of everything and has a great “unconscious” power over her son. The mother is able to control him from near and far. Again, repetition is used to emphasize this fact.
The last two lines are somewhat humorous. The change of tone is interesting and shows that the speaker has not completely given into despair. She is still light-hearted enough to make fun of their situation. She states that her “rival” has taken so much from her, even the fact that she used to be her own “worst enemy.”
She dishes up her dreams for breakfast.
In the last four lines, the speaker recognizes the fact that there is no way the two are ever going to come to terms. The mother makes food that is prepared with “salt tears.” This speaks to her dislike of the speaker and the general fact that her son is in a relationship. No matter what changes, the speaker knows that her “rival” will never “give up.” The use of enjambment in line four enhances the speaker’s annoyed, yet resigned tone.