The poems, “Brendon Gallacher,” by Jackie Kay and “The House,” by Matthew Sweeny are both about childhood memories. “Brendon Gallacher,” is based on an imaginary friend and “The House,” is on the house that the poet grew up in.
The opening of Kay’s poem gives a detailed background description on her friend. There is also a use and repetition of the possessive pronoun, “My Brendon Gallacher” as though he is her particular friend.
At this point, this makes Brendon seem as though he was a close childhood friend remembered by the poet.
Sweeny’s poem, which has a more objective opening, describes the house as though it is just a particular house that he has seen. This is indicated by the definite article, “The House.”
There is also the use of cold, inhospitable images, which draw us into the poem:
“each of them cold, and the wind
battered the windows and blew down
power-lines to leave the house dark.”
These images contrast with the warm, affectionate description of Brendon in Kay’s poem, which show all that Brendon, meant to her.
Kay’s poverty images, like Brendon’s father in prison, his large family and his hopes to make a better life for his mother, reflect the poet’s love for her mother and her desire to make her life better:
“…We’d talk about his family being poor.
He’d get his mum out of Glasgow when he got older.”
The place Glasgow, in this quotation is associated with the idea of poverty because it is one of the poorest places in Scotland.
In comparison to this, Sweeny gives the idea of poverty by saying that rats have been infested in the house for a long time, which gives the impression that the inhabitants of the house were so poor that they were unable to afford pest control.
“Rats lived in the foundations
sending scouts under the stairs
for a year or two.”
This is reinforced by the image:
“and after dark the cockroaches
came from under the stairs
to be eaten by the dog.”
Kay makes Brendon’s poverty the excuse not to invite him tea so that her mother is prevented from meeting him. So, by saying “he’s got holes in his trousers,” her mother will think that he is too embarrassed. This leads to the turning point of the poem, as she says: “I like meeting him by the burn in the air” because it gives the indication that he never came indoors. This suggestion is then taken further when Kay later explains that, on the day that the rain kept her indoors, her mother reveals that she knows someone who lives in the house next to the one that Kay claimed Brendon lived in who told her that, no Gallachers had ever lived there. This leads us to realise that Brendon was an imaginary friend and when the truth about him was discovered, Kay’s friendship with Brendon was over. His existence died:
“…he died then, my Brendon Gallacher.”
The pathos of his death is that although they usually met outside, he came to Kay’s room to die: “flat out on my bedroom floor.” We feel for Kay here at this point because it seems that she was lonely and that is why she imagined Brendon so, now that he is gone, she is alone again. The fact that Brendon dies on her bedroom floor, gives the impression that this is where Kay retreated to, to mourn the loss of her imaginary friend.
This compares with the way in which Sweeny reveals, at the end of his poem that the house he was describing, was actually the house he grew up in which implies that he had an impoverished childhood: “And I did grow up there.” This is because like Brendon the truth about the house is hidden till the end.
Both poems suggest a lonely childhood. Kay’s loneliness is proved by the fact that she felt the need to imagine a friend. Her loneliness is also shown by the fact that she imagined Brendon with a large family: “He had six brothers and I had one, my Brendon Gallacher.” This meant that she could invent conversations with him about his family and she would feel like she was part of them.
Sweeny on the other hand, shows his loneliness by telling us that:
“Neighbours never entered
As often as in other houses.”
This gives the impression that his neighbours excluded him and his family, from the community.
Sweeny also mentions with pride that although his family was poor, their had a piano which was their one precious possession: “but it did have a piano upstairs,” which gives him and his family a claim to respectability.
Like Kay, Sweeny also has an imaginary figure in his poem:
“a friendly ghost was glimpsed
at the foot of a bed.”
However, he does not claim that he was the one to see it but he gives the impression that it may have been friendly because it may have been the ghost of a drowned man, to whom they gave shelter when his body was pulled out of the sea:
“its ration of the drowned
one of whom visited the house
carried there on a door.”
These images of a ghost and a body give the impression that a murder had taken place in the house however; Sweeny stresses that there were no murders, apart from the killing of lambs for food.
In comparison, the image of the dead Brendon Gallacher, stretched out on Kay’s bedroom floor and the detail with which he is described:
“…………his spiky hair
his impish grin, funny flapping ear,”
gives the impression that he had been murdered by Kay’s mother. This makes us feel as though he’s death was real so we feel Kay’s pain at his loss.
At the ending of Sweeny’s poem, we are given dark, inhospitable imagery:
never took over the interior,”
which suggest that it was neither light nor warm during the day. This image is reinforced by the image of the crows, waiting to nest in the chimneys:
“Crows were always sitting
on the wires, planning nests
in the chimneys,”
which suggest that fires were rarely lit, probably because of the cost of coal, which explains why the bedrooms were always cold. The poem ends on a note of possession, as though he did have some affection for the house as he excuses its faults with:
“but it did have a piano upstairs.
And I did grow up there.”
This suggests that he experience some happiness there.
Similarly, the possessive pronoun is stressed in a note of regret and mourning at the end of Kay’s poem:
“O Brendon, Oh my Brendon Gallacher.”
That last line makes Kay’s mother’s stark revelation about Brendon never living at “24 Novar” all the more crass and insensitive as though she did not realise that she had killed her daughter’s best friend.
The poems, “Brendon Gallacher,” by Jackie Kay and “The House,” by Matthew Sweeny present childhood memories through Kay’s detailed imagery of Brendon and Sweeny’s cold and inhospitable images, which show the feelings of the poets clearly. Through this, we are able to reveal their loneliness and their sense of affection and loss.