This Is a Photograph of Me by Margaret Atwood

The poem, This Is a Photograph of Me belongs to Atwood’s second collection of poems, The Circle Game. The poem starts innocently with the pronoun “It” and the reader searches for the subject in the first few lines of conscious description. The “blurred lines and grey flecks” suggest a print in an old newspaper, and alternatively, a sepia-tinted or black-and-white photograph that is often contained in a forgotten family album.

This Is a Photograph of Me Analysis

Stanza 1

The narrator of the poem, which can be read in full here, converses directly with the reader and expects the latter to “scan” this momento; so a very personalized “I/you” relationship is set up which precludes the presence of any other person. What is surprising is that the narrator starts describing the photograph from “the left-hand corner” whereas a person usually looks at the center the focal point of a print. Something that looks like a tree is only a vogue reference in parenthesis, (balsam or spruce) it is as though the narrator herself cannot remember. Though Atwood does not tell us that it is a woman who is speaking that seems the natural assumption to make when the poet is also a woman.

Stanza 2

The photograph indistinctly presents the landscape for the narrator talks about. The lack of clarity and the smallness in this rude structure suggests the wilderness, poverty and isolation. The background is mentioned briefly in a couple of lines and then comes the climax when the lake suddenly takes on menacing shape:

The photograph was taken, the day after I drowned.

This single word at the end of these two lines comes as a shock and suddenly the reader realizes that he/she is listening to a disembodied voice – the voice of a ghost or a spirit. The rest of the lines remain in parenthesis as though visually what follows are just extraneous details; but the contents rivet the attention of the reader and, paradoxically, it is this aside that becomes the major interest in the poem.

There is a subjective takeover in the narration as the voice elaborates:

 I am in the lake, in the center

of the picture, just under the surface.

Although the title now sounds contradictory, the poem itself takes on new and multiple meanings. Questions about – who is the speaker? How did she drown? Who took the photograph? Did anyone realize what had happened? Was there anyone with her? Was it foul play? Did she commit suicide? None of these questions are answered. The voice continues, but with a great deal of imprecision as though time itself has taken a toll on the memories of that tragedy. For instance, the narrator cannot define:

Stanza 6

This is a deliberate inversion of a law of physics for a light ray falling on water gets distorted. Perhaps she wants to mystify and confuse the reader. Yet in the last verse, the spirit makes a request, rather illogical if the information is so vogue:

Stanza 7

The poem seems to end on a note of confidence that the reader who has been entrusted with a secret is going to do everything possible to uncover the mystery surrounding the death of this woman.

There are no markers to show that this is an actual incident that took place on a    particular day in a particular place. The lack of detail emphasizes the fact that it could have occurred at any time, in any country or in any society.

The reader’s curiosity is roused enough to search for more, or at least make more meanings out of the given lines. It is quickly possible to give a feminist reading to this poem and consider events when women have been tortured, oppressed and put away – and now someone    must break the silence. Yet the voice in the poem could also be that of lost values – of truth, honesty, loyalty among others that have been wiped out, or materialism in contemporary times. The plea in the final line suggests that if a person looks within himself/herself, he/she can restore the virtues again to establish a better society.

As is most of Atwood’s poetry, the verse structure means very little. The lines are short and just as well have been written as paragraphs. Even in this poem, each line wraps over to the next one until    the end shows that it is not a portrait under scrutiny but, at best, the picture of a landscape where a voice makes a strange request that is hard to satisfy.  The voice of the wilderness could the protesting   against technological advances too. In fact, Atwood’s style indicates that a poem may begin with the writer’s intent but it can only be completed in the reader’s consciousness.

Atwood has vehemently pronounced that the narrative voices in her works do not belong to herself but to the characters she is portraying. They seem   to have lost their sense of place in time and lie “just under the surface” waiting to be rescued. Water occurs repeatedly as a reflecting mirror, and within it we can see ourselves. The incomplete “photograph” itself is used as a metaphor and it appears against in her latest novel, The Blind Assassin, which was awarded the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. The book really hinges on what is not visible.

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