Figure and ground in Michael Symmons Roberts’ ‘What’s Yours is Mine’

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What’s Yours is Mine

By Michael Symmons Roberts

‘Doors which yield to a touch of the hand…

permit anyone to enter.’

Thomas More, Utopia

It was our game, to drive at night into their city,

scan the streets, choose a house at random

and stroll in mid-evening as the householders

were finishing, say, a birthday dinner.

We watched them look up, terrified but mute.

 

We picked lambs off their plates, emptied their glasses

then ran upstairs, threw open drawers

tried on jackets, fingered through their journals,

pocketed the odd keepsake – scarf, set of car keys,

half-read book, a piece of underwear for shame.

 

We tried to get a rise from them by breakage:

a cabinet of crystal cups, statuettes of local gods,

but they are patient in their sad-masks.

Such acquiescence, you knew they saw you straight,

and even so would give you everything.

 

Our only rule: we never touched them.

Save one time I saw a blue heart-shaped soap

clutched in a woman’s hand and something in her

would not give it up to me for all the world.

I have it somewhere. Let me find it.

 

Published in the London Review of Books, 18 May 2017, p. 23

Figure and ground in Michael Symmons Roberts’ ‘What’s Yours is Mine’

The cognitive categories of figure and ground facilitate discussion of how the reader’s attention is directed and assist in the positive identification of foregrounded items. Figures attract the reader’s attention whereas the ground consists of items that are neglected and/or deselected. In the case of the poem under consideration in this essay, the speaker of the poem and his/her companions collectively comprise the figure for the first three verses of the poem in that they move and act against the householders, who constitute the background all the while they remain static and undeveloped.

‘What’s Yours is Mine’ by Michael Symmons Roberts was published in the London Review of Books on 18 May 2017, appearing alongside another poem by the same writer entitled ‘Soliloquy of the Inner Emigré’ and an article on ‘Brexitism’ by Alan Finlayson. Given this context, it is fair to assume that the subject of Roberts’ poem is that of immigration, a highly contentious and emotionally-charged topic in the current political climate. In this reading, the householders represent an immigrant or ethnic community terrorised by those who cannot accept their presence. Nevertheless, this is not the only possible reading. When removed from the circumstances of its publication, the poem could equally be read as a metaphor for an oppressive political regime or an abusive personal relationship. Alternative readings such as these resonate behind any chosen interpretation and I see no reason to pin down one reading as definitive.

The poem describes a scenario in which the speaker and his/her companions enter the homes of the city-dwellers and cause havoc. The intruders’ motivation is not that of pecuniary gain (although some small items are looted as ‘keepsake[s]’), but merely to ‘get a rise from’ the ‘householders’, or in other words, to provoke some reaction from them. Their efforts are unsuccessful until the last verse, and the narrative change in the final lines is marked textually by a fluctuation in the figure/ground relationship coupled with a foregrounded presence of negation and a deictic pronoun shift.

The ‘dominant’ of the poem, or its larger organising principle, is the us/them dichotomy established in the poem’s title (yours/mine) and the first line: ‘It was our game, to drive at night into their city’ (my emphasis). This polarity is sustained throughout in the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘they/them/their’ until the final verse, when one of ‘them’ emerges from the background to become a figure through her unwillingness to relinquish the ‘blue heart-shaped soap’. Her defiance is marked against a background of acquiescence which had formerly characterised ‘them’, and this figure, previously one of the ‘sad-masks’, is now recognised as a woman. Equally, the speaker is no longer part of a larger ‘we’, but in the final verse becomes ‘I’ and ‘me’. The woman’s stand against the intruders has led to a recognition of the presence of the individual within a larger group in both parties: the woman as part of ‘them’ and the speaker as part of ‘we’. The poem’s ending is unrelentingly bleak, nonetheless. The last line comprises two complete sentences and the caesura created by the first full stop allows the reader a moment for the full impact of the preceding statement to sink in: ‘I have it somewhere. Let me find it.’ What happened to the woman is unknown, but the intruder is now in possession of the soap and broke the game’s only rule (‘we never touched them’) to get it.

The next section of this essay takes a closer look at figure and ground in the poem to further elaborate on the points already made. The poem comprises four verses each of five unrhymed lines, and a mixture of long and short sentences. I have already mentioned the devastating effect of the caesura in the final line, and in fact, this structure is mirrored in the first line of the final verse: ‘Our only rule: we never touched them.’ This rule has clearly been broken in the poem’s final line and the enormity of this event is foregrounded in the parallel construction of these lines, both of which are uncharacteristic of the rest of the poem, where the lines run into one another in imitation of one half of a spoken dialogue. The speaker is relating to the listener (who may or may not be identified with the reader) details of a ‘game’. Given that the past tense is consistently used, one may assume that the game is no longer played, presumably because its object has been achieved. The first verse describes how the victims of the game were chosen: entirely ‘at random’. The second verse shows the game in progress, with lists of actions performed and objects stolen; each of the latter takes temporary prominence before being deselected as the next item – with all its attendant implications – moves into focus. The intruders are a collective ‘figure’ here because almost every action in the first two verses belongs to them. Even the one exception performed by the householders (line 5) is an action embedded in another: the intruders, in subject position, watch the householders ‘look up’ and the following description (‘terrified but mute’) is rendered through the intruders’ eyes. As the intruders ransack the house, the full meaning of the poem’s title is made clear. The intruders violate the householders’ food, drink, clothes including underwear, means of transport, literature, even their private thoughts (‘fingered through their journals’). The third verse furnishes the reader with the object of the game, expressed in colloquial form: ‘We tried to get a rise from them’. The ‘but’ which follows in line 13 renders this construction implicitly negative: a ‘rise’ has not been obtained. The revelation of the game’s object occurs at the exact mid-point of the poem and this is the crux: what the intruders want is a reaction. When a reaction is obtained, albeit it one of static defiance (‘something in her / would not give it up to me for all the world’), the only rule is broken and the game is over.

The figure/ground relation is rather more complex in the third verse. The intruders remain the key attractor even in the active verbs attached to the householders in lines 14 and 15, because the viewpoint belongs to the intruders. Nevertheless, this position is clouded by foregrounded language attached to the householders. Alliteration draws attention to the ‘cabinet of crystal cups’, for example, and the precise meaning of ‘statuettes of local gods’ is unclear. (These statuettes may be family photographs, or shelf ornaments, but the phrase could also be taken entirely literally: this is one point in particular where the reader’s interpretation of the poem as a whole will dictate what form the statuettes take.) The pattern of past-tense verbs is broken in line 13 (‘they are patient’) and the householders are dehumanised and rendered faceless in the phrase ‘sad-masks’. The emergence of one of the householders as a figure in the final verse is anticipated in the preceding verse as the foregrounded items mentioned gradually draw the reader’s attention towards those persecuted rather than the persecutors. Finally, it is the woman’s reluctance to part with the ‘blue heart-shaped soap’ that changes the game.

I have not yet mentioned other texts brought into play by this poem, namely those referred to in the title and accompanying quotation. The title would seem to be a paraphrase of a marriage vow from the Book of Common Prayer (‘with all my worldly goods I thee endow’), and refers to a state in which goods become common property by mutual consent. The quotation from More’s Utopia similarly refers to a set-up in which theft is unimaginable. More’s utopian blueprint describes a society in which everyone’s possessions are identical, so there is no motive for robbery. By contrast, the intruders in Roberts’ poem steal only ‘keepsake[s]’ from the households they invade at random through doors which are left open. The motivation for their actions is not the acquisition of goods, but the exercise of power. Their intention is not robbery or assault, but humiliation and provocation. The intruders wish to assert their dominance over the householders and to strip them of all human dignity by treating them with heartless contempt.

This analysis has employed the cognitive categories of figure and ground to articulate that which is readily understood, but perhaps not otherwise so clearly demonstrated. The analysis has benefitted from the application of this framework in that the woman’s emergence as a figure and the speaker’s recognition of her as such has been effectively traced. The poem’s bleak ending is rendered all the more powerful once it is realised that the speaker has recognised an individual human being amongst the faceless ‘them’ that s/he is engaged in persecuting, but has carried out an act of violence towards the woman regardless of this insight. The speaker is not simply lacking in empathy, but is finally characterised as a being who is actively cruel and merciless.

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