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.
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