Ursula Askham Fanthorpe, who wrote ‘Casehistory: Alison (head injury),’ was an Oxford-educated English poet. Fanthorpe held a variety of miscellaneous positions, including as a hospital clerk. Some of her poems, presumably including ‘Casehistory: Alison (head injury) were inspired by the patients she encountered while working at a hospital in Bristol. Fanthorpe wrote many other poems with her partner, R.V. Bailey. Their collection of love poems they co-wrote, From Me To You: love poems, was published in 2007. She published ‘Casehistory: Alison (head injury)’ in her first book of poems called Side Effects in 1978. Fanthorpe died in 2009.
Explore Casehistory: Alison (head injury)
In short form, Alison, the poem’s speaker, is looking at a photograph of her younger self. Through Fanthorpe’s diction, it is evident that Alison has suffered a head injury, which makes it difficult for her to remember the events and people that have made up her life. She looks at the girl in the picture with envy, realizing how much easier her younger self has it, and simultaneously pitying her younger self for not knowing what lies ahead. ‘Casehistory: Alison (head injury)’ is a poem, which you can read in full here, brimming with sadness and tragedy.
Breakdown Analysis of Casehistory: Alison (head injury)
As stated earlier, the speaker of the poem, Alison, has suffered a head injury that has affected her memory and her ability to complete life’s daily functions. The poem contains nine stanzas; each stanza contains three lines. The poem is written in free verse; none of the lines intentionally rhyme. This adds a feeling of a stream of consciousness to the poem: Alison is looking at a photograph of herself, and the emotions and thoughts come to the older, injured Alison all at once and in no particular order. It should also be noted that this poem is delivered as a monologue. The older Alison is delivering it to the reader as she looks back at her younger self. Fanthorpe does not inform the reader about the specifics of Alison’s accident; the reader only knows something terrible has happened.
The first line of the poem is in parentheses. Fanthorpe writes, “(She looks at her photograph).” This reads almost like a stage direction, setting the stage, so to speak, for the reader. The second line of the poem turns from the pronoun “she” to the pronoun “I,” and Alison begins her reflections. From the first stanza, immediately, the reader is clued in on the poem’s title. Obviously, the speaker of the poem is Alison, who has suffered a head injury. That first stanza is a puzzle, of sorts, that the reader must decipher. If the speaker’s mother only has one daughter, then surely the speaker is also that one daughter. Fanthorpe’s use of the past tense in the third line is heartbreaking; Alison’s injury has affected her mental abilities. Alison no longer feels intelligent since her accident, and she realizes how much she has changed since. It is also worth noting that Fanthorpe inverts that third line, probably to emphasize the fact that the speaker realizes she is no longer the woman she once was.
In the second stanza, Alison begins to describe her former self. Fanthorpe sets up an interesting juxtaposition here. The former Alison is “enmeshed in comforting Fat,” but she also has “delicate angles,” as if the photograph is somehow warning all who look upon the photograph to realize that life is fragile, regardless of one’s health and happiness. Fanthorpe’s diction is of vital importance here, calling the Alison in the picture’s knee “autocratic,” which hints that the speaker probably has difficulty controlling how she walks or supports herself.
This thought is indeed confirmed in the next stanza. Fanthorpe uses the simile of a ballerina’s knee to show just how much Alison has lost after her injury. This knee was not just any knee: it was a work of art. The reader infers this through Fanthorpe’s allusion to Edgar Degas’ famous ballerinas. Alison’s knee used to be able to adjust when necessary, can now barely lug Alison up the stairs. What was once easy is now a struggle.
The fourth stanza is a continuation of the third. This stanza also hints at some of the other injuries Alison has sustained in her accident. In the picture, the only thing that has broken young Alison’s face is her smiles; since the accident, however, Alison can no longer describe her face as unbroken. She also admits that the Alison shown in the picture has smiled over memories that she can no longer recall. So much has been forgotten since her injury.
The fifth stanza reads, “She knows my father’s dead/And grieves for it, and smiles. she has digested/Mourning. Throughout the poem, Fanthorpe uses short, choppy sentences, which are probably to accentuate Alison’s brain injury. The unjust has also affected Alison’s ability to form long, coherent thoughts. It is also important to note the lower-case “s” in “she.” This error, too, is probably a result of Alison’s injury. The speaker also concedes that this Alison has come to grips with the death of the speaker’s father, something which apparently the speaker has yet to do. Even though she has felt the grief of losing her father, the Alison in the picture is still able to smile. The indicates to the speaker that she had at one time dealt with the tragedy and had picked herself up from it.
The speaker has not been so lucky, which is apparent in the sixth stanza. The speaker has forgotten even the most major and traumatic of memories, including the death of her own father. Every day, someone needs to remind Alison that she has lost her father; she is perpetually in a state of grief and loss. The speaker notes her feelings of insignificance by failing to capitalize the personal pronoun “I.”
In the seventh stanza, the speaker tells the reader what she needs and wants. The speaker desperately wants to get back all that she once had, but she wishes she could forget the reasons that made her old self so faithless.
Alison reveals how she feels about her old self in the next stanza. Even though she no longer feels like the same person, she is still proud of who she once was. This pride turns to pity, however, in the ninth stanza. Alison pities the girl in the picture for not being able to see what a bleak future she actually has.
The poem then ends in repetition: “A bright girl she was.” The line is tragic, but it also reinforces that Alison is now a shell of the woman she once was.
Fanthorpe once held an administrative role in a hospital, which inspired some of her poems, including this one. Fanthorpe shows that the patients are reduced to nothing more than their injuries and illnesses. After all, a case history usually does not reflect the personality, wants, and needs of the patients. Typically, they are clinical write-ups of what has happened. With this poem, however, Fanthorpe delivers a personal glimpse into the former and present life of one of the patients, perhaps commenting on the way people with traumatic injuries are often treated.