‘Box Room’ is a poem about going to stay with a boyfriend’s parents for the first time. A box room is a small room in a house, usually converted into a bedroom. Lochhead will be sleeping in the box room while she is staying there. The box room symbolises the claustrophobia she feels, as her initial awkwardness at the fact she shares her boyfriend’s love with his mother soon gives way to a depression at the long-term state of their relationship. This is emphasised as Lochhead begins to learn more about her boyfriend as a young man, from all the artefacts in his old bedroom.
The poem begins with three minor sentences (none of the sentences contain verbs). The short sentences give the opening of the poem a staccato (short, rapid) rhythm, which creates a sense of panic, and suggests Lochhead may be nervous about meeting her boyfriend’s mother for the first time. Although the opening sentences seem pleasant, Lochhead does not give the reader time to reflect on the opening tone because of the short sentences. She immediately changes the mood of the poem by stating ‘then she put me in my place’. This has a double meaning, both in terms of showing Lochhead to the box room where she will be staying, as well as ‘putting her in her place’, as in showing her who’s boss. This use of a double meaning emphasises that while the mother is being nice to Lochhead to her face, she can tell that there is some tension behind the scenes. The mother clearly sees Lochhead as a temporary girlfriend, and she emphasises her own permanent role in the man’s life. This is illustrated with the mother’s first line ‘this room/was always his’. The use of ‘always’ gives a sense of permanence, and highlights the fact that the mother has always been in her son’s life. She becomes more open about stating that Lochhead is temporary by saying that the son sleeps in the box room, apart from when ‘he brings a friend’. This not only highlights that Lochhead is only regarded as a ‘friend’ and therefore not in a serious relationship, but also hints that there have been other ‘friends’ before Lochhead. This is reinforced later in the stanza, when the mother says about the sofa bed, where the son is sleeping ‘once or twice before/ he’s slept there.’ This shows that Lochhead is regarded only as one of many, and the mother clearly doesn’t think the relationship will last long.
The mother seems to be increasingly rude to Lochhead throughout the stanza, saying ‘next door if you want to wash your face’. Although this seems nice on the surface, the mother is perhaps hinting that Lochhead has a dirty face, and that she should fix her appearance. The mother then gives Lochhead ‘peace to unpack’. Lochhead puts this in quotation marks to suggest that the mother doesn’t really mean this sentiment, and doesn’t want to give her peace, nor does she really want her to unpack. Unpacking is a symbol of permanence, as it suggests that Lochhead will be staying a while. However, Lochhead immediately states that there is no real sense of permanence by writing that it is only a ‘weekend case’ (it is a small case), and describes it as ‘lightweight, glossy, made of some synthetic miracle’. This is a metaphor for her relationship as a whole, as it seems to be artificial, and ‘lightweight’ (not really with any substance behind it). This is the first time that Lochhead hints that the relationship with her boyfriend may be imperfect, and is a change in tone from angry (because of the conflict with the mother) to depressed (because her relationship with her boyfriend may be falling apart). This is emphasised when she describes herself as being ‘left alone’. However, she soon focuses her attention back on the conflict with the mother, stating that the mother has a ‘pathetic’ attachment to her son, which manifests itself in keeping the box room as a ‘shrine to your lost boyhood’. The box room here has become a metaphor for the three-way relationship between Lochhead, her boyfriend, and his mother. The fact that the mother kept the room the same from when her son was young shows that the mother still thinks of her son as a boy. Lochhead is an uncomfortable presence in the room, as she doesn’t think of her boyfriend that way. Lochhead states that the mother thinks ‘she can brush off time with dust’, thus highlighting that the mother sees the box room as a microcosm of her relationship with her son, and that by maintaining the room as it was when he was young, so the relationship will remain the same. Lochhead says, ‘I laugh it off in self defence’, which shows that she is mocking the mother, although that she may not be that secure in herself. The fact that she admits it is self defence also indicates that there may be a fault in her relationship. This is reinforced with the final line where she claims that she has ‘come for a weekend to state her permanence’. It is left ambiguous (open to interpretation) who she needs to show her permanence too – the mother, or her boyfriend. It is clear that the conflict with the mother is opening up a number of questions about her relationship with her boyfriend.
The second stanza immediately begins with a pessimistic tone, which continues throughout. She returns to the idea of ‘peace to unpack’, repeating the mother’s phrase from the previous stanza, although says that she ‘found none’. For Lochhead, the fact that the mother has left her only gives her an opportunity to reflect on her relationship. This is not a happy feeling. Lochhead now begins to describe the box room, making it seem increasingly claustrophobic. The walls are described as ‘dun-coloured’ (a greyish brown colour), and with ‘one small window’. This subtly indicates the idea of a prison cell, and there is a growing sense of unease towards the room. Lochhead increases the sense of unease by trying to work out what is making her feel this way ‘What can I blame/for my unrest?’. This gives way to a sense of panic as she states ‘persistent fear/elbows me’. The use of enjambment makes the ‘elbows me’, somewhat shocking. The reader becomes aware of the panic at the same time as Lochhead does. She looks around the room to try and work out why she feels this sense of fear. The mention of the ‘narrow bed’ echoes the prison imagery from earlier. However, she soon works out that it is because she is not confident in her relationship. She sees a picture of her boyfriend as a younger man, which leads her to question ‘but where do I fit into the picture?’ The use of a question mark not only engages the reader, but also shows that Lochhead is experiencing growing doubts. Although she refers to the boyfriend as ‘you’ throughout the poem, it is clear that the questions are really to herself, and not to her boyfriend.
Lochhead continues to juxtapose her boyfriend’s previous life with that of their relationship, mentioning his ‘previous prizes’. This highlights that she may think of herself as something he has ‘won’, and therefore that she is likely to be discarded. She talks of her boyfriend as getting bored with his prizes: ‘plots grown thin’, again illustrating that she doesn’t feel confident in her relationship. She mentions the boyfriend’s egg collection. Eggs are an important image in Lochhead’s poetry (see also ‘Revelation’) as they symbolise womanhood (since woman give birth). An egg can be a symbol of the future (of starting a new life together) or of the past (childhood), and therefore represents the conflict between Lochhead and the mother. In addition, the box room is itself an ‘egg’ that the mother has ‘sat on’ and maintained. It is full of all of the things that were used to nurture the son. However, Lochhead’s pessimistic tone continues by stating that he has ‘no interest in’, perhaps highlighting that he doesn’t have many long-term interests. There is also a sinister note when she mentions that he stole the eggs from bird’s nests. Again, this echoes the conflict between Lochhead and the mother, as she is effectively attempting to steal her boyfriend from his mother’s nest. Lochhead again emphasises her ‘precarious position’, believing that she will eventually become an ‘abandoned object’. She uses juxtaposition to draw together the conflict between the past and the present, writing that ‘your past a premonition’. A premonition is a vision of the future, meaning that the phrase Lochhead uses is a paradox. However, she states that by looking at her boyfriend’s past, and all of the things he was interested in for a short while, she believes that is what will happen to her in the future. She states that she ‘can’t close her eyes to’, which hints at a growing obsession with the idea of time. Ironically, this is also true of the mother. Both Lochhead and the mother have become obsessed with the past. Both are upset by the thought of change. This brings the poem full circle, where the mother and Lochhead now seem to agree. Her final image is of her ‘shivering’, perhaps out of fear or anxiety, and of the ‘deceptive mildness’of the night’. The mildness represents the niceness of the situation she is in, both in terms of the mother’s friendliness, as well as her relationship with her boyfriend. However, the use of the word ‘deceptive’ suggests that neither is what it seems. The poem thus ends on this depressing and pessimistic tone.
‘Revelation’ is a poem about growing up, and about the violent destruction of innocence. It deals with a story of Lochhead as a young girl being sent to a farm to collect eggs and milk, and being frightened by the bull she sees there. Throughout the poem, Lochhead juxtaposes her own childlike naivety with that of the threatening nature of the world. There is also a female subtext that runs throughout the poem – Lochhead becomes aware of herself as a female, and states that the danger of the world comes from masculinity.
The first stanza of the poem makes it clear that this is a personal memory for Lochhead. The initial tone of the poem is one of reminiscence and perhaps even nostalgia. It starts with a description of what sounds like an idyllic childhood memory, of ‘being shown a black bull/ when a child at the farm for eggs and milk.’ This disarms the reader, and perhaps leaves them unprepared for the terrifying imagery that is to come. This approach is designed to place the reader in the same state of innocence that Lochhead was herself in. Just as the reader will be shocked by later developments, so was Lochhead herself. The first sign of something not being right is when Lochhead describes the bull as a ‘monster’. The use of this metaphor highlights the way in which Lochhead views this memory. It is clearly a dark experience, and one that still fills her with horror. What is most troubling about this experience is that all of the other people mentioned seem to be unaware of the danger, giving the bull ‘the charm of a friendly name’, and holding her hand. Given that this poem is clearly about the loss of innocence, the use of the word ‘threshold’ symbolises this barrier between innocence and the real world. There is something more sinister about not seeing the bull in this stanza, but instead knowing that he is in the darkness of the ‘outhouse’. The fact that Lochhead is ‘peering inside’ also emphasises the point that she is an outsider to this world of violence and aggression symbolised by the bull. The innocence with which she looks inside clearly highlights that she has little sense of the terror that the bull will inspire.
The second stanza begins with the deliberate non-mentioning of the bull, which serves only to increase the tension. Lochhead looks into the outhouse, and can see ‘only black/and the hot reek of him’. This makes him far more menacing, and makes it clear that he symbolises more than just a bull. The stanza begins with the dramatic pause where she cannot see the bull, until ‘Then he was immense’. The bull therefore seems to appear from nowhere, and shocks Lochhead with his size and scale. She states that ‘his edges merging with the darkness’. This gives the bull an almost paranormal quality, as if he has been created by the darkness. This metaphor also highlights the size of the bull, as he is so large it is impossible to see where he finishes and where the darkness begins. She uses alliteration to describe his size as a ‘big bulk’, thus creating a sense of his intimidating size. The plosive (harsh consonant) sound of the repeating ‘b’ also echoes her sense of surprise. He also roars in a way that terrifies Lochhead, meaning he is intimidating in his sound, his sight, and his smell. Although the bull is chained up, this does not reassure Lochhead, and she references his ‘clanking’, making it seem as if the chain is part of the bull, again making him seem more menacing and paranormal. The bull instantly begins moving in an aggressive and terrifying way, and he begins ‘roaring’. Lochhead describes his nostrils as ‘gaping like wounds’. This simile is designed to make the bull seem even more horrifying, and to heighten the drama of looking into the building. There is a real sense of menace about the bull now. This is immediately juxtaposes by the ‘oblivious’ (unaware) hens that are in the farmyard. The reader gets the sense that seeing this bull is an important moment for Lochhead, as she is no longer one of the ‘oblivious hens’, and has learned a major truth about the world.
Stanza three continues with the tone of being ‘oblivious’. The ‘faint and rather festive tinkling’ is the same noise that she earlier described as ‘trampling, and a clanking’, thus showing how innocence and terror are often just a matter of different perspectives. The hens have little sense of the violence of the bull, since they can just hear the noises that he makes, but can’t see him. The ‘hasp’ refers to the metal lock on the door of the bull’s outhouse, and shows that the hens are protected from the violence and therefore remain unaware of it. Lochhead is now aware, and therefore fears the bull, describing it as a ‘Black Mass’. Interestingly, she hints that she had been aware of the existence of the bull before she saw him. This symbolises her growing womanhood, and her instinctive sense that the world was more dangerous than it seemed. She refers to the bull as being ‘the antidote and Anti-Christ’. The repetition of ‘anti’ (meaning against) strengthens the sense that the bull represents a change in her worldview. The ‘Anti-Christ’ is a reference to the devil, and is the strongest image used in the poem to highlight the fear she feels towards the bull. The use of ‘antidote’ is interesting, in that an antidote is usually a positive thing, used to counteract a poison. This may suggest that Lochhead has some enjoyment of the violence of the bull, and on a deep level is aware that danger is exciting or interesting. However, she continues to say that the bull ‘threatened the eggs’. Like in ‘Box Room’ eggs symbolise womanhood, both in terms of childhood (having been recently ‘hatched’ and nurtured) as well as femininity (the idea of giving birth and having her own children). The bull therefore threatens both Lochhead’s sense of innocence, as well as her sense of femininity. This highlights that the bull is representative of masculinity. This is reinforced by the mention of the ‘placidity of milk’. The metaphor here extends to the idea of femininity (since only females can produce milk). Indeed, the bull, as an aggressive male cow, is threatening milk, which is the produce of a female cow. This illustrates the dynamic of a female/male conflict. Also, more subtly, the whiteness of the milk contrasts with the blackness of the bull, symbolising good and evil, or innocence and aggression.
Lochhead begins the final stanza by describing her reaction to seeing the bull. The fact that she turns and runs makes it seem as if all of the above happened in the short time it took her to react to the bull. This emphasises the importance of her ‘revelation’ as it seems as if a great deal of thoughts happened in the space of a single moment. Lochhead states that her ‘pigtails’ thumped on her back as she ran; pigtails highlight how young she was in this memory, as well as a sense of innocence. As she runs away from the farm, she goes past the ‘big boys’ who ‘pulled the wings from butterflies and/blew up frogs with straws’. This highlights how Lochhead is now aware of the violence of the male world around her, as the first boys she encounters are torturing animals. Importantly, both of the animals they are torturing – frogs and butterflies – are ones that start their life in one form, and then transform into another. Frogs start as tadpoles and butterflies start as caterpillars. Lochhead therefore is saying that she has experienced her own transformation, and now exists in her ‘fully formed state’. This is not a positive thing, as she is now at the mercy of the violent men around her. The imagery she continues to use represents her darker view of the world, with even the hedges being ‘thorned’, and the nests being ‘harried’ (harassed). The second image again highlights the female world being challenged, with nests (and therefore mother birds) being attacked. Lochhead again uses the images of eggs and milk to symbolise womanhood. However, she is intent on defending them both, and realises how vulnerable she is. She is now focused on preventing the ‘eggs shattering’ and the milk spilling. Lochhead’s revelation is therefore one of vulnerability, and the violence and aggression of the male world. She realises that she must now spend her whole life protecting herself from these things. This is a horrifying and bleak tone on which to end her poem.
Liz Lochhead is one of nature’s talkers, asking as many questions as she answers, and her anecdotes are thick with mentions of friends: good friends; dear friends; oldest, closest, best. It’s impossible not to experience her conversation as an extension of her poetry; a looser, less structured version of what Carol Ann Duffy, in her foreword to Lochhead’s 2011 A Choosing: Selected Poems, called her “warm broth of quirky rhythms, streetwise speech patterns, showbiz pizzazz, tender lyricism and Scots”. Lochhead’s voice, as in her verse, is rich and sensitive, frank and cheerfully vernacular. And the themes are there, too: nationality; female experience; a profound awareness of time, how we move through it, and how it moves through us. Dates matter to her: she sprinkles them in the titles of her poems (“1953”, “5th April 1990”), and in conversation is careful to get them right, pinning her past down precisely, day by day, year by year. And it becomes clear that 31 December – the day on which we talk – is a date that matters more than most. Alongside its keenly felt symbolism, which this year is underscored by the fact that 2016 will usher in the final month of her five-year tenure as Makar, Scotland’s national poet, New Year’s Eve also marks the anniversary of her relationship with her husband, who died suddenly half a decade ago, and whose absence opened a hole at the heart of her life around which she’s been edging ever since.
The catalyst for our interview was the announcement, on 21st December, that Lochhead had been chosen to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry by a panel headed by Duffy, in her role as poet laureate. Lochhead is only the 11th woman to have been awarded the prize since its inception in 1933, and the eighth Scot, and she’s elated. “When Carol Ann phoned me, I was desperately stuck on a poem about the Scottish parliament, which I’d been working on for ages,” she says. “So for a couple of weeks I felt mocked by it: this great award and I couldn’t finish a bloody poem! But after I finally got it handed in, I was purely thrilled. When you look at the list of who’s had it – Michael Longley, Don Paterson, all the way back to WH Auden and Charles Causley, who’s one of my absolute favourites – it’s a huge honour. Of course, there’s those on the list you’ve never heard of, so it’s not necessarily a step towards posterity. But there you go. I’m delighted to be in such company. And I’m looking forward to having tea with the Queen.” She’s bought a dress.
It’s all a far cry from the “little ex-mining village just outside Motherwell” where she grew up. Lochhead was born in 1947. Her mother and father had just returned from the war, and their homecoming, far from triumphal, turned out to be a muted business, stale and blank. “After the war/ was the dull country I was born in”, writes Lochhead in a poem about her early childhood. Lacking a home of their own, her parents were “squashed in with one set of grandparents then another” for the first eight years of their marriage, before “finally moving into their new council house in the very beginning of 1953. In UK history, 1953 was coronation year, but in our family history it’s the year we got the house. There’s always that difference between capital-H history and your own.”
For Lochhead, the gap has narrowed dramatically over the intervening years. She published her first poetry collection, Memo for Spring, in 1972. It won her a Scottish Arts Council book award, and turned out to be the first rung of a ladder that she’s ascended with alacrity. Despite a successful parallel career as a playwright, it’s for her poetry that she’s best known; she was named poet laureate of Glasgow in 2005, and in 2011 took over from Edwin Morgan as Makar. The everyday, low-lit scenes of high streets and schoolrooms that fill her poems stand as a necessary counterpoint to the picture postcard Scotland of lochs and moors and mountaintops. Through her writing, Lochhead has twined herself into her country’s history, both as a figure in it, in her role as national laureate, and an author of it.
Makar's a muckle of an honour | Liz Lochhead
What’s surprising is how close she came to going another way. Her teachers urged her to read English at university but, aged 15 “and a rebel”, it was painting that drew her; she set her heart on the Glasgow School of Art. Once there, she had fun, got drunk, fell in and out of love and made great friends, but she found that, when it came to the work, she “wasn’t getting on very well. I’d lost track, really. I passed, but I’d got lost.” The fashion at the time was for abstracts, and the lack of narrative bothered her; she turned to poetry for release and never really turned back.
According to legend it was at this point that she joined a writing group hosted by the poet and academic Philip Hobsbaum. The list of members reads like a rollcall of recent Glaswegian literary history: Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Jeff Torrington are all on the bill. But when I mention it, Lochhead hoots. “There was no ‘group’ – we keep trying to tell everyone. I’d gone along to an evening class Philip was running the year I left art school, when I didn’t have anyone to talk to about poetry, and I met Jeff there. But Alasdair I met through winning a poetry prize, and it was he who introduced me to Tom. We all knew Philip, but separately: it wasn’t a formal thing; we didn’t all meet and discuss our work. But it doesn’t matter how many times you tell people – they always want to call it a group.”
We knew Philip Hobsbaum separately. It doesn’t matter how often you tell people – they always want to call us a group
Perhaps, I suggest, the persistence of the myth comes out of a need for narrative, too; the notion of a crucible out of which she, Gray, Kelman and the others all emerged to write late-20th-century Scotland into being is a seductive one. Yes, she says, but it’s nonsense – and in any case, at the time, she had no clear sense of herself as a Scottish writer. For years, in fact, she was a rover. The year after Memo for Spring came out, she moved to Bristol, then to Turkey with her boyfriend of the time, who “was a Turkish Marxist”. After a spell back in Scotland and some travelling with friends she spent a couple of years in Canada before meeting a guy in New York. But at the start of 1980 she was offered a job as writer-in-residence at the College of Art in Dundee, “and I couldn’t resist it. Plus, I found I was fed up being a foreigner. My boyfriend and I lived in the West Village and I remember the guys from our building saying to him, ‘I really like that Irish girl you’re going out with.’ I was sick of being taken for a pan-Celt. I hadn’t felt particularly Scottish beforehand. But after I came back, I thought: I live here.”
She met Tom Logan 30 years ago last October, though it was two months later at a Hogmanay party that they got together. “It’s your When Harry Met Sally dream, isn’t it? To kiss the love of your life on New Year’s Eve – though I didn’t know that’s who he was at the time; I just knew he was gorgeous.” It’s been five-and-a-half years since he died, but the pain of it is still raw in her voice as she speaks. Grief, she’s found, is a sly and deceptive visitor; on the big days you wait in fear of the knock, but “that’s not how it works, really. The other week I needed to mop something up, and the cloth I pulled out was a cut-up bit from some of Tom’s pyjamas. That wasn’t a special day, but it’s little things like that that give you intense moments of pain.” Still, she says, “I do dread this time of year. Christmas isn’t too bad – I run away with a friend who doesn’t celebrate it and watch telly. But the next day’s my birthday, and then there’s New Year’s Eve, and you can’t avoid it in Scotland, you’ve got to bring in the bells. And we always celebrated the new year and our anniversary together.”
Her appointment as Makar came “about six months after Tom died, and if it had happened any other time I’d have said no. But I got the phone call completely out of the blue, and I turned to my sister and said, ‘God, what should I do?’ And she said, ‘What would Tom say?’” Again, the catch in her voice. She accepted the role, and “it was a lifesaver, actually. It forced me to get out and to work. I’ve barely had time to draw breath. I counted up every day I performed over the last year, and it came to 102.” She gives a bewildered laugh. “Honestly it’s been great, but I’m looking forward to the freedom. It’ll be good to go back to writing what comes. I need that now.”
Becoming Makar forced me to get out and work. I counted up every day I performed over the last year, and it came to 102
Something, it seems, has shifted. After five years’ constant and necessary distraction, Lochhead is ready to slow down and look around. She has taken up painting again and plans to turn Logan’s workroom into a studio. She has crossed out the whole of June in her diary, leaving it open to whatever blows through. Over recent months she has finally felt able to write about her loss, too. “I didn’t set out to write about grief. I’d accepted a commission to write about my favourite place. But it didn’t come alive until I thought about my real favourite place: our old caravan up by Fort William, where we’d escape whenever we had the chance. And it just came out. I find that often happens: you’re stuck with something until the point where you go, ‘To hell with it, I’ll tell the truth.’ And you do that quickly and rawly, and it’s fine.”
About 2016 itself, she’s “feeling very positive. I’ve a new collection coming out to mark the end of my term as Makar, and seeing the Queen will be a wonderful, surreal start to things.” The announcement itself, she reminds me, was made on “the darkest day of 2015 – which was lovely, because it’s the day the light turns. There’s more light already; it doesn’t feel like it yet, but there is. I wrote about it once, in a poem called “In the Mid-Midwinter”. The light comes back. The light always comes back.”