“This Is a Photograph of Me” is a free verse poem by Margaret Atwood, first published in 1966 in her collection “The Circle Game” . The poem is a haunting and thought-provoking piece that explores themes of identity, perception, and the power of language. The poem describes a photograph of a lake with a small frame house and some low hills in the background. The speaker of the poem reveals that she is in the photograph, just under the surface of the lake, having drowned the day before the photograph was taken. The poem is a powerful meditation on the nature of identity and the ways in which it can be obscured or distorted by societal expectations and the limitations of language.
This Is a Photograph of Me Poem
It was taken some time ago.
At first it seems to be
print: blurred lines and grey flecks
blended with the paper;
then, as you scan
it, you see in the left-hand corner
a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree
(balsam or spruce) emerging
and, to the right, halfway up
what ought to be a gentle
slope, a small frame house.
In the background there is a lake,
and beyond that, some low hills.
(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.
I am in the lake, in the center
of the picture, just under the surface.
It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or small I am:
the effect of water
on light is a distortion
but if you look long enough,
you will be able to see me.)
This poem, rich in imagery and evoking a sense of mystery and reflection, appears to describe a photograph and ultimately reveals an unsettling truth. Let’s analyze it in depth, part by part:
“It was taken some time ago. / At first it seems to be / a smeared / print: blurred lines and grey flecks / blended with the paper;”
The poem begins with a temporal setting, indicating that the photograph is not recent. The initial description of the photograph as “a smeared print” with “blurred lines and grey flecks” suggests that the image is not clear, perhaps due to age or the quality of the photograph. This could be a metaphor for memory, how over time, the details of our memories blur together, making them difficult to distinguish.
“then, as you scan / it, you see in the left-hand corner / a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree / (balsam or spruce) emerging / and, to the right, halfway up / what ought to be a gentle / slope, a small frame house.”
As the observer looks closer, details start to emerge from the photograph: a branch of a tree and a small house on a gentle slope. The specificity of “balsam or spruce” and “small frame house” grounds the poem in a vivid natural setting and perhaps suggests a rural or wilderness area. This attention to detail contrasts with the initial, more ambiguous description, mirroring the process of closer inspection or deeper reflection.
Description of the Setting
“In the background there is a lake, / and beyond that, some low hills.”
Further elements of the landscape are introduced, adding layers to the scene. The mention of a lake and low hills paints a peaceful and idyllic picture, typical of a tranquil natural scene. However, this serene backdrop serves as a contrast to the revelation that follows.
“(The photograph was taken / the day after I drowned. / I am in the lake, in the center / of the picture, just under the surface.”
The narrative takes an unexpected and chilling turn as the speaker reveals that the photograph was taken the day after they drowned. The speaker is, in fact, present in the photograph, submerged in the lake. This revelation casts the previously described scene in a new light, turning the serene image into something more somber and haunting.
“It is difficult to say where / precisely, or to say / how large or small I am: / the effect of water / on light is a distortion / but if you look long enough, / eventually / you will be able to see me.”
The poem concludes with the speaker reflecting on the difficulty of discerning their image in the water due to the distortion caused by light. This can be seen as a metaphor for the elusiveness of the deceased and the struggle to preserve their image in one’s memory. The notion that by looking “long enough” one might eventually see the speaker suggests that through persistent remembrance and reflection, it’s possible to recapture the essence of someone who has passed away.
This poem grips me with its haunting beauty and the stark, almost jarring juxtaposition between a serene natural scene and a chilling narrative twist. Initially, it lures me into a false sense of tranquility, with descriptions of blurred lines and natural elements emerging from a smudged photograph. But as the poem unfolds and reveals its true subject—the day after the speaker’s drowning—I’m struck by the depth and complexity of the imagery used to describe the moment captured in the photograph.
The subtlety with which the poem transitions from a simple description to a revelation about death is both unsettling and profound. It forces me to reconsider the initial setting, now overshadowed by the knowledge of the speaker’s presence under the lake’s surface. The poem’s power lies in its ability to transform the way I perceive the image, from one of pastoral beauty to one of solemn remembrance.
The contemplative ending invites me to look deeper, both literally into the photograph and metaphorically into the nature of memory and loss. The idea that prolonged observation might allow the speaker to be seen reflects the struggle to keep the memory of lost loved ones alive.
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