This Is a Photograph of Me
Discovering the Themes and Symbolism in Poem This is A Photograph of Me
In poetry it is important for meanings and themes to be conveyed to us in a unique and interesting manner. Margaret Atwood uses many literary devices so the reader can really feel her poems and come to a greater understanding through her wonderful narrative voices. In the poem, “This is a Photograph of Me,” Atwood uses haunting, ambiguous imagery to bring the piece to life and support its mysterious theme.
The first image we receive from the poem is in the title itself. The image is an actually “image” of the narrative voice. We get a pretty good idea that the “photograph” of the narrator will be revealed to us by the straight-forward title. As we begin to delve into the poem itself, we discover that it appears to be a “smeared print” at first. This imagery hints to us quite literally that there is much more to this photograph than “blurred lines and grey flecks blended with paper” and on a more hidden level it reveals something much deeper that we discover in the latter half.
In the second stanza the narrator, “she” if you will, begins to guide us through a deeper understanding of the cryptic blurriness of the print. She points out to us not a branch, but a “thing that is like a branch.” This adds to the mystery of the picture and begins to build a curiousness about our narrator. We are shown “part of a tree emerging,” which gives another hint to secrets which will soon “emerge” and be revealed. There’s also “a gentle slope, a small frame house,” which would normally have a positive connotation, but the “ought to be” in front of the two descriptions, gives the images the ambiguity and mysticism like the rest of the poem.
The third stanza consists of a two-line sentence which describes the background of the photo. We are told of “a lake, and beyond that, some low hills.” In its presentation as a short, separate image, it feels far away and dream-like. Then, in the fourth stanza, we are told by the narrator that this is a picture taken after she drowned. It is very shocking, especially after the still, silent images we have been painted, but not too surprising because the imagery prepares the reader for the true intent of the narrator’s voice.
In the fifth stanza, she tells us she is in the center of the picture, just under the surface. The imagery here is simple but very effective. We begin to piece together the “hidden” image of her body, already dead for a day in that calm, gray water. In just a simple description we wonder many things, which are not answered. Who is our narrator? How is she telling this “story?” Who took the picture? Her murderer? The search party? A photographer unknowing about what was “just under the surface?”
In the sixth stanza, the ambiguity continues with the narrator not sure exactly where her body was or how large or small. These are simple descriptive questions that move us with a subdued horror. Then there is the image that seems to sum up the whole feeling of the poem: “the effect of water on the light is a distortion.” The whole photograph is a distortion of the harsh reality of the situation. In the last stanza, we are informed that if we look long enough we’ll see her. Again, a line that doesn’t make sense and leaves us questioning the mysticism and blurriness of the piece. Will she really “emerge” if we keep looking?
With each stanza we are revealed a deeper meaning. Concrete imagery of the photo reveals the mysteriousness, and in the last half, the imagery paints the uncertain and the intangible. We are left uneasy and wondering, just like the blurry imagery presented.
Close Reading and Interpretation of the Fourth Stanza of This is a Photograph of Me
These lines are the fourth stanza of the poem and are located approximately in the center of the piece. I think that the fact that the lines are located in the center is important because to me these lines signify a turning point in the poem or in other words a sort of catharsis. The beginning of the poem is mostly concerned with the surface level details of the photo such as small details like trees and houses. The beginning of the poem seems like it simply a poetic description of a beautiful scene. But then these lines completely change the tone and mood of the poem. What at first seemed light hearted is now dark and dreary.
To me, these lines signify the beginning of the second part of the poem which is juxtaposed with the first. The first line in the poem begins “It was taken” and then the line I chose begins “The photograph was taken” which is essentially just a rephrasing of the first line and therefore a use of repetition. This use of repetition implies as I said before, a new chapter in the poem which will give insight and a new perspective on the first. The two contrast with each other in several ways but at the same point, they rely on each other for meaning. Essentially the catharsis that takes place here is impossible without the preceding lines and our changed perception of these lines is impossible without this catharsis.
Another aspect of these lines that is crucial to understanding it is its use of the passive tense. Instead of using the active voice and saying something along the lines of “the person took the photo the day after I drowned” she uses the passive by saying it was taken. In writing it is generally agreed upon that using the passive voice should be avoided so her repeated use of it makes it notable. Especially given that this is a poem not prose and she likely chose her words and style very carefully. This use of the passive voice is relevant because having your picture taken is a passive act. Even though we often think of things like photos as objective they certainly are not. The photographer can change several things such as lighting or the angle to make the subject of the photo appear completely different.
So by using the passive voice, Atwood draws attention to the passive nature of this photo. The photo can be seen as a metaphor for how we see the world. If we approach this from a feminist perspective we can see this as how in our patriarchal society, men create and tell women’s stories rather than women themselves. Atwood says the photo was taken the day after she drowned and this could be alluding to this fact. Atwood is trying to allude to the fact that having your stories taken from you is in itself a sort of drowning and ultimately death. Conveying yourself through art is a vibrant expression of life while having this stolen and co-opted by others for their benefit is death.
So the fact that she is writing this poem is in and of itself and act of subversion against this misappropriation. Her story was taken from her but in the act of writing, she is taking it back and now letting the audience see it from her perspective. Rather than being the passive subject she is taking on the active role of conveying. This is also subversive because women have been historically seen as passive beings incapable of critical or intellectual thought and by writing this poem she is a living contradiction to this notion. Ultimately I believe she is trying to change the perspective of the audience who likely see patriarchy ar normalized through her subversive personal expression
One way she tries to change the perspective of the audience is through juxtaposing the surface with the what is beneath it and invoking the audience to look deeper. In the line I chose, the use of parentheses is a critical component of the poem. What may seem to be just mere punctuation is able to help convey the theme I mentioned above. In writing, parentheses are generally used to convey information that is supplementary but not critical to the meaning of the sentence. It is a meaning that is in the background but not the forefront. This connects to the fact that the first part of the poem describes what is on the surface of the picture and it is what appears immediately to those who cast their gaze upon it.
But Atwood tells the reader that if you look closer you will see her under the water. The water here seems to represent patriarchy and dominant cultural ideals which distort and hide her from plain view. Not only do they do this but they have killed her in a metaphorical sense as well. They have drowned out her sense of self because they are so suffocating and constricting. By placing this catharsis within parentheses she is suggesting that real truth does not lay on the surface. Even going into the background where the lake is located is not enough. One has to separate themselves from their initial impressions and look beyond the background to see below the surface where real truth lies.