By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Canadian writer Margaret Atwood (born 1939) is best-known as a novelist, as the author of books such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake. But she began her career as a poet. ‘This Is a Photograph of Me’, today’s poem, is taken from her first collection of poems, The Circle Game, which was published in 1964 when Atwood was only in her mid-twenties. You can read ‘This Is a Photograph of Me’ here before proceeding to our analysis.
It is easy enough to summarise ‘This Is a Photograph of Me’. The poem is a lyric, spoken by someone who describes, as the title makes clear, a photograph showing them. The photograph, we are told, was ‘taken some time ago’.
The speaker describes the contents of the photograph to us, revealing how what first seems to be a smudge in one corner is actually the branch of a tree. There is also a small house in the photograph and, in the background, a lake and some hills.
Then, in a devastating parenthesis which concludes the poem, the speaker reveals that they are dead, and that this photograph was taken the day after they drowned. They are not clearly visible in the picture, but they drowned in that lake which is in the background of the photograph, just beneath the surface. The speaker tells us that if we look hard enough, we should be able to see them beneath the lake’s surface.
‘This Is a Photograph of Me’ is a troubling poem because of the casual way in which the poem turns from a matter-of-fact description into a terrible revelation: the poem is being spoken from beyond the grave. In this way, the poem ‘gives a voice to the voiceless’, as we often say about works of literature which are narrated or spoken by people who are marginalised from society.
And the dead are most literally voiceless; the drowned, too, raise troubling questions. Did the dead speaker of Atwood’s poem drown by accident or design? And if the latter, then whose design? Was this a suicide, or was it murder? Was the speaker male or female?
Were they a small child? There are several reasons for thinking so, although Atwood provides only hints.
First, there is the show-and-tell nature of the poem (‘This Is a Photograph of Me’ is curiously performative, as though the child were standing up in front of the class at school and showing the picture, in a version of ‘what I did during the school holidays’).
Second, there is the straightforward, simple, even naïve manner in which the speaker relates the news that they are dead: they bury (or drown) the key revelation beneath a series of minor or even trivial details, only one of which will turn out to be directly relevant (that lake in the background).
The language the speaker uses, too, hints at a younger person, albeit one with some education: they know the tree in the photograph is either balsam or spruce, but are unable to tell between them. Even if we decide there is not enough evidence to proclaim that the speaker is a child, there is a certain innocence to their manner of addressing us (and look at the way we are quietly and unassumingly ushered into their confidence through the use of the second-person pronoun, ‘you’, so we are made complicit in whatever happened to them, as though we are responsible for finding their body).
This is what helps to make Atwood’s poem so unnerving – and, of course, the syntax (placing the shocking twist in parentheses as though, like the earlier brackets surrounding the detail about the tree, this later revelation was no more important).
‘This Is a Photograph of Me’ also raises interesting questions between visual and verbal (or written) representation. The word ‘photography’ comes from the ancient Greek meaning ‘light-writing’, because the process of photography uses light to capture and reproduce images (much as photocopying does – so this word also comes from the Greek for ‘light’, for the same reason). And a number of details in the poem, right from its title onwards, suggest that the photograph described in the poem and the poem itself double up as two kinds of ‘text’.
Start with that title, ‘This Is a Photograph of Me’: this gestures towards the (described) photograph, but the deictic ‘This’ also carries the possibility that this (i.e. the poem the title also describes or denotes) is itself the photograph. The speaker’s references to ‘smeared / print’ (the print of the page?), ‘blurred lines’ (lines of verse?), and ‘paper’ in that first stanza all summon both the poetic text as well as the photographic one.
Similarly, in the following stanza, one might ‘scan’ a photograph for particular details, but one also scans a poem (scansion is the name for analysing a poem’s metre).
From the outset, then, we are invited into a troubling relationship with both poem and photograph, both speaker and (supposed) subject. The photograph may be the subject of the poem, but the speaker themselves is the subject of the photograph, even if they are displaced, invisible, beneath the surface of that lake.
‘This Is a Photograph of Me’ contains 26 lines: 14 describe the photograph and then the final 12 (in parentheses) usher us deeper into the speaker’s confidence with the first use of the ‘I’ pronoun. 14 lines, the length of the traditional sonnet, establish a fairly traditional rural scene, a landscape described as in a million nature poems.
But then this sonnet-length description is overturned by the bracketed aside, which reveals the dark secret lurking beneath the surface of the lake and, by implication, within all such nature scenes. In the last analysis, this free-verse poem, like all good free-verse poems, is not as artless or loose as it first appears to be. Its syntax, punctuation, and length all play their part in creating its sinister and troubling atmosphere.