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



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.

Masculinity and Metaphor in ‘Teen Wolf’

teenwolf promotional picture

As may be evident from my rather matronly appearance these days, I was a teenager during the eighties. Yes, really I was, and like every other teenage girl in 1985, I was madly in love with Michael J. Fox. I spent my pocket-money on going to the cinema to see Back to the Future and Teen Wolf at least six times apiece, and I watched Family Ties whenever I was organised enough to remember that it was going to be on the telly, because there was no iPlayer or catch-up TV in those days, my friends, oh no – only a VHS player that no one could ever successfully set to record the correct programme.

The two films mentioned above now swell the ranks of my DVD collection and I revisited Teen Wolf very recently after seeing it mentioned on Twitter (of which, more later), and found that watching the film in my forties rather than my teenies was a very different kind of experience: for one thing, instead of thinking that all the ‘kids’ were astonishingly cool and well-dressed, I was horrified at the hideous batwing jumpers, the nasty too-tight jeans and the bad, bad denim jackets that the cast were proudly sporting. But hey – that was the eighties. More importantly, being freed from the red mist of teenage hormones meant that I could focus on the film’s narrative, and so, for perhaps the first time, I understood what a multi-faceted narrative it actually is. It’s a Bildungsroman, of course, a coming-of-age story, in this case for a young man. The film is positively dripping with symbolism at every corner and each symbol in itself is worked over and over so that it becomes maximally meaningful. In short, if Freud had seen Teen Wolf, he would have thought all his Christmases had come at once.

What follows is a discussion of the film’s metaphors, how these metaphors are presented, and – because repetition is my thing – how repetition and parallelism guide the viewer towards a particular understanding of these metaphors and, by extension, of the narrative as a whole.

There will be spoilers. But the film is almost thirty years old, so you ought to have seen it by now.

teenwolf fangs

The story is a simple one. High school student Scott Howard (Fox) notices that he is undergoing some physical changes – not the usual ones – and one night, when there is a full moon, he changes into a werewolf. His father, also a werewolf, tells Scott that the Wolf is a part of himself that he must accept and learn to deal with. Scott changes into the Wolf unintentionally during a basketball game and goes on to achieve the kind of popularity he had never enjoyed as plain Scott Howard. But being the Wolf comes with its own set of difficulties and Scott eventually rejects what the Wolf can offer him when he decides to play the basketball championship as himself. The game is won and Scott’s transition to manhood is complete. (I’ve capitalised ‘Wolf’ throughout because there is a very real sense in which the Wolf is a separate character: he is Scott’s alter ego, Hyde to his Jekyll, Batman to his Bruce Wayne, and he deserves a capital letter.)

teenwolf transformation scene

It should be fairly obvious even from the simple synopsis above that Scott’s transformation into the Wolf, and his subsequent absorption of the Wolf which allows him to become Scott again, is a metaphor for his transition from puberty through adolescence and into maturity. This is a male Bildungsroman, as I said before, and Teen Wolf has a great deal of ‘maleness’ about it, involving scene after scene of some kind of confrontation. The film opens and closes with young men engaged in competitive sport, and throughout the film a great deal of combat takes place on the basketball court in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. Scott’s team makes the transition from losing to winning team, by way of indicating that Scott has fought his demons and emerged victorious. When Scott chooses to play the final game as himself instead of the Wolf, the viewer is presented with an exact replica of the opening scene: Scott, in slow-motion, bouncing the ball in preparation for a vital penalty shot. This is a neat and economical way of heightening the tension because when we first see this scene, Scott loses. The Wolf could win it – we know that – but can Scott do it? We’ve seen him lose before, and this time we know that much, much more is at stake – this is not just about the championship, this is Scott’s moment to prove himself. This is his initiation ceremony. This is the point when he asserts his right not to be the Wolf.

On a more literal, surface level, the most obvious confrontation – and the most physical – is that with Mick, the ‘Neanderthal’ twenty-year-old who is still at school because he has ‘done time’, and the boyfriend of Pamela, the object of Scott’s young male desire. That said, Scott runs up against almost all the other characters at one point or another – his father, Vice Principal Rusty Thorne, girlfriend-in-waiting Boof, the man from the liquor store, the whole basketball team – but the central confrontation is of course that between Scott and the Wolf, the hitherto unknown side of himself. Scott has to learn to control the Wolf, not to let it control him – and this is true of all of us during our formative teenage years. We all have to confront our own wolves at this stage in our lives and we all have to decide who we want to be. And of course, when you’re sixteen or seventeen, you just don’t know who you want to be. Moreover, you don’t know who other people want you to be, and a battle rages between the need to conform and to be part of a community, the desire to please others, and the absolute necessity of finding your own voice. ‘Everybody likes the Wolf,’ says Scott, but this is not entirely true, nor in the end is it entirely relevant. The point is whether or not Scott likes the Wolf.

In one reading of the film, Scott’s exploration of his burgeoning sexuality includes the possibility of his being homosexual, with this latent tendency being represented by the Wolf. This is rather an outlandish reading, but there is textual support for it in the script and also by way of precedent in numerous other texts. Many of the most popular teenage fictions feature vampires and/or werewolves, and their presence is almost always metaphorically sexual. For example, it has been noted elsewhere (Reading the Vampire Slayer, ed. Roz Kaveney) that the scene in which Buffy reveals to her mother Joyce that she is a vampire slayer is intentionally scripted to read like a daughter-to-mother coming-out scene: all you have to do is replace ‘slayer’ with ‘gay’ and there you have it. And Joyce’s response comes straight out of the same script: ‘Have you tried not being a slayer?’ This scene has its less subtle counterpart in Teen Wolf when Stiles’ response to Scott’s request for a listening ear is to assume that Scott is going to tell him that he’s gay:

STILES: ’Wait a minute, are you going to tell me you’re a fag?’
SCOTT: ’No, I’m not a fag…I’m a werewolf.’

It’s nowhere near as clever as the Buffy script, but it deals with the same idea: the presence of the Other (slayer or werewolf) which is mistaken for homosexuality. The night Scott transforms into the Wolf for the first time is the same night Stiles asks him ‘What’s it like coming out of the closet?’ after Scott has been shut away in a cloakroom with Boof as part of a party game. Scott returns home in some physical distress, and, locked in the bathroom, he ‘comes out of the closet’ when he transforms into the Wolf. The next morning, Mr Howard attempts to comfort his son by telling him that ‘Werewolves are people too.’ Again, the dialogue in this scene could easily be read with ‘the werewolf’ acting as a metaphor for homosexuality, and the Wolf polarises opinion in a way that could be translated into a first experience of homophobia directed at someone who has recently come out. The Wolf is almost universally popular, but there are those who reject Scott’s new persona: Rusty Thorne, Lewis, Boof, and especially Mick, who tells Scott to ‘Stick with your own kind, freak!’

It is tempting to accept this reading, but to do so one would have to interpret the film’s ending as a rejection of homosexuality in favour of a return to a more ‘acceptable’ way of life and an insipid relationship with the girl-next-door. While this is not entirely out of the question, I don’t think there’s enough textual evidence to support such a reading beyond making a tentative foray into the possibility of the Wolf’s being representative of a homosexual Other, as I have done here. On the whole, it is far more likely that the Wolf symbolises the increase in a young man of both sexual hunger and prowess; the eventual suppression of the Wolf becomes possible once Scott has completed his rite-of-passage in (presumably) losing his virginity to Pamela.

teenwolf pamela

Okay, so let’s take a closer look at Teen Wolf’s women. There isn’t really any room in this film for women. Pamela and Boof are both cyphers, non-characters, there simply to be symbols for the choices open to Scott and what he chooses to reject in himself – although, to be fair, this is also largely true of the male characters, as we’ll see later. Apart from Pamela and Boof, the only other female character is Scott’s mother, who is conspicuous by her absence. Her appearance in the narrative can be categorised in five different ways, as follows: firstly, of course, she is the woman who is no longer there. Scott is apparently being raised by his father alone. There is no woman in the home to act as a counterfoil to all this maleness. Scott’s mother is the woman who accepted, and became accustomed to, having a werewolf for a mate; she is also the woman who was fought over and won, thereby providing a parallel narrative for Scott’s own courting years in Mr Howard’s confrontation with Rusty Thorne. In Mick’s narrative, she is a woman who had her head blown off for stealing chickens; this latter is a ‘your mother’ type of taunt with which Mick goads Scott at the dance. Finally, Scott’s mother leaves a gap for Boof to fill. Scott’s parents were also childhood sweethearts, as Boof and Scott finally prove to be, and Boof is the successor to Scott’s mum as the werewolf’s mate. She begins to take on this role in her relationship with Mr Howard: Scott comes home one afternoon to find Boof ‘shooting hoops’ with his father. This is an obvious attempt on Boof’s part to ingratiate herself with Scott, but the whole scene has a distasteful hint of Oedipus ‘ick’ about it.

teenwolf scott and boof

Or, I don’t know, perhaps it’s just a scene that doesn’t work. Boof’s pursuit of Scott is so naked, and here she is saying ‘I’m a much better match for you than Pamela, because look how well I get on with your father!’ As if that mattered. See, I’m not sure whether it’s just me, but I think a big problem with this film is that we don’t like Boof. I’m not sure whether this is a question of the actor’s performance or the script with which she had to work, but to be honest – well, she’s a pain in the backside. She’s a nag. She’s humourless. She stomps off in a strop at least three times. She’s everything Scott is trying to escape at the beginning of the film: she’s average, she doesn’t mind him being average, she thinks his father is ‘a great guy’, she likes the town in which they live. Boof is also basketball – emphasised for us in the ‘shooting hoops’ scene just mentioned – whereas Pamela is the school play. We see Scott approach the basketball team coach in an early scene to talk to him about quitting the team. Scott doesn’t want to be on a losing team: he wants to be something special, something different, and all these connections are made in his conversation with Boof immediately following his chat with the coach. Scott’s frustration at the poor performance of his team quickly turns to a discussion of his perceived ‘averageness’ and the fact that Pamela won’t talk to him. Boof’s responses (before she flounces away in a huff) forge links which will remain in the minds of the viewer throughout: Boof at this stage is everything Scott would like to get away from.

teenwolf basketball

So, in wishing to dump the basketball team in favour of the school play, Scott is expressing a preference for Pamela over Boof. Scott can only appear in the school play as the Wolf, whereas he plays basketball in both his personae. When he appears onstage as Scott following the showdown with Mick at the dance, he explains to the bemused drama teacher that he wishes to play the role as himself, but this request is refused because ‘that wouldn’t be theatre’. No Wolf, no part. Scott walks offstage, rejecting both the play and, by implication, Pamela. The drama teacher’s association of the Wolf with theatre encourages the viewer to categorise the Wolf with that which is not real: Pamela, the Wolf, the play – it’s all show and no substance. Scott abandons the play to return to basketball, and by implication, Boof.

Pamela is Boof’s physical antithesis – she is blonde to Boof’s brunette – and she is cruel and selfish. She shamelessly plays Scott and Mick off against each other and her relationship with the drama teacher has its sexual undertones. I can’t trace which play it is that Pamela’s acting in, but there’s an awful lot of talk about ‘ravishing’. Pamela is Scott’s initiation into the adult world of sex and their dressing-room liaison ends with Scott/Wolf howling with pleasure. (This howl is heard – of course – by Rusty Thorne, the man thwarted in love by Scott’s father.) By contrast, there are two scenes in which Scott kisses Boof when they are alone together and in both instances, Scott is physically chastised afterwards. When they are locked in the cloakroom during the party, Scott’s growing sexual excitement causes a partial transformation and Boof slaps his face when Scott claws her back with his Wolf fingernails. Boof and Scott kiss briefly at the dance and Mick punches Scott when the two reappear. In the context of the film’s narrative, Scott’s final rejection of Pamela for Boof would appear to be on some level a rejection of sex altogether, because in choosing Boof, he is choosing to be punished, rather than rewarded, for any sexual acts he may instigate.

‘It doesn’t matter how you play the game, it’s whether you win or lose. And even that doesn’t make all that much difference.’

Scott’s rejection of Pamela is in some respects a frustrated narrative: the boy gets the girl, but in the end he doesn’t want her. And Scott’s relationship with his coach is arguably another frustrated narrative. This is no Karate Kid scenario. The coach is one of many potential male role models with which Scott is presented, and on two occasions the coach is seen to give Scott advice, but his advice is either confused or irrelevant and when Scott refuses to play as the Wolf at the end, this is an acknowledgement on Scott’s part that his coach doesn’t know best and that he must trust to his own instincts. It has to be said though, that the scenes in which the coach doles out his useless advice are really very funny.

‘Let me give you a little advice. There’s three rules that I live by. Never get less than twelve hours’ sleep, never play cards with a guy who’s got the same first name as a city, and never go near a lady who’s got a tattoo of a dagger on her body. Now you stick with that, everything else is cream cheese.’

Other potential role models include Stiles, of course, and Scott briefly tries out ‘being’ Stiles when he ‘surfs’ as the Wolf on top of Stiles’ van (or ‘Wolfmobile’): a silly piece of showing-off for which he is almost instantly reprimanded by his father.

teenwolf stiles

Mick represents the aggression which would dominate Scott if he chose to remain as the Wolf, but after the fight at the dance, this is not an option for Scott any longer. The Wolf’s rage has frightened him as it once did Mr Howard many years ago in his confrontation with Rusty Thorne, and it is inevitable from this point that the role model Scott will adopt is his own father. In rejecting the Wolf, Scott repeats his father’s history. And just in case we are left in any doubt as to how Scott will cope without the Wolf, we are shown a scene in which Mr Howard demonstrates that he himself no longer needs to transform. When Scott’s father confronts Thorne for a second time at the dance in order to protect Scott, he does so as himself – not the Wolf – and yet the end result of this second interview is the same. All Mr Howard has to do is let out a low growl and Thorne wets himself in terror.


The film’s ending is in many ways problematic. Scott’s decision is touted as ‘the right thing’, but he is rejecting everything he craved at the film’s opening and settling for an ordinary life instead of an extraordinary one. Yes, everything within the context of the metaphor works out just fine, but there remains a sense that the viewer is being force-fed an ideology in which the individual’s capacity for difference and his or her potential for greatness must be suppressed in order to meet the needs and requirements of the community in which s/he lives. Scott’s a team player. The Wolf is not. But I suppose the counterweight to this argument lies in the fact that the Wolf’s achievements are empty: the theatre is only make-believe, Pamela is cold-hearted and vain, and his basketball victories are Pyrrhic in that they lose him the friendship of his team-mates.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that my interest in this film had been rekindled when I saw it mentioned on Twitter. Now, I can’t remember all the details, but Teen Wolf was listed along with ten or eleven other films, all of which feature an extra doing something they shouldn’t be doing, or doing something daft which distracts from the main event. In the case of this film, there’s a female extra in the final scene who has left her fly undone, presumably to render those horrible too-tight eighties jeans more comfortable when sitting down, and she’s frantically fiddling with her zip while Scott is celebrating his victory. You can watch it here, but be warned that once you’ve seen it, you’ll never be able to watch the final scene again without seeing it.

There was a whole load of stupid talk on the Internet about this, with references to a ‘guy pleasuring himself’ and all that sort of thing. One commenter even wrote ‘you can see the tip but nothing else’. Well, actually no you can’t mate, because she’s a GIRL and all you can see is her knickers. Still, it shouldn’t have made it to the final cut…!