Illusion and Identity in Atwood’s
Identity in Atwood’s “This is a Photograph of Me” In her poem “This is a Photograph of Me,” author Margaret Atwood uses imagery and contrast to explore issues of illusion versus reality as well as identity. The poem is split into two halves. The first half contains descriptive words about scenery and natural objects, and the second half, surrounded by parentheses, begins with the unnerving surprise that the narrator is dead.
The poem opens with a description of a picture that at first seems blurry but slowly comes into focus, like a photograph slowly developing, that even resembles a written poem itself (“blurred lines and grey flecks/blended with the paper. ”) The second and third stanzas go on to describe objects in the picture, including a “small frame house,” a “lake,” and “some low hills. ” The first half has a reminiscent and descriptive tone, falsely leading the reader along with serenity.
But even here, there is a shroud of mystery, with a description not just of a “branch,” but of “a thing that is like a branch,” and the house is “halfway up/ what ought to be a gentle slope,” not halfway up a gentle slope. What could this mean? The calm albeit mysterious peacefulness of the first half ends with the fourth stanza’s jarring declaration, beginning with an opening parenthesis, that the photograph the narrator is describing “was taken/ the day after [she] drowned. The pace of the poem after this revelation seems frantic, searching for the narrator in the lake, which was in the first half described as being “in the background” and now “in the center/ of the picture. ” The narrator tells the reader that what can be seen is distorted and one must look intently, playing with the themes of illusion and identity. Perhaps the ambiguity of the poem and the exploration of illusion and identity are hinting at a feminist perspective that a woman’s true spirit is overcast by a male-dominated society.
Or perhaps the poem’s focus is eluding to a more universal human search for identity, a with a narrator who is unsure and obscured, but “just under the surface,” about to break out – previously dead but now reborn, to find a new path. Or perhaps the author is talking about poetry or literature itself and the author’s hidden intentions lurking in the work. As noted earlier, the description of the “photograph” at the beginning resembles a description of a poem: “blurred lines and grey flecks/ blended with the paper,” like lines of writing and the letters comprising words.
The author dies with the birth of her poem, when the piece lives on its own; but the author is still there, somewhere, her intentions a key part of the text. The photograph in the poem, in the first half, is described as “smeared” and “blurred” and in the second half there is still “distortion. ” So instead of disclosing the narrator’s story and identity, no resolution is apparent. On the contrary, the photograph creates illusion and obscures identity. The reader is left with uncertainty, just like the blurred and distorted photograph of the poem.