Essays

The Multiplicity of Form and Content in a Photograph

It is the title that boldly proclaims the object and subject in Margaret Atwood’s poem: “This is a Photograph of Me.” But while the poem speaks in a simple and straightforward language, Atwood is nonetheless able to obscure almost all meaning. Atwood’s talent lies in creating an image in the reader’s mind, which begins to unravel and multiply. The reader is given the photograph, which is revealed to be polysemic in form and content, and must then confront his own singular understanding of existence and reality.

Using the third person neuter pronoun, Atwood introduces very little about the actual essence of the object: “It was taken some time ago” (1). The object is constantly in flux and uncertainty. “At first it seems to be / a smeared/ print” (Atwood 2-4). The persona is only able to speak of it in terms of what it seems be. Indeed, through enjambment, the emphasis is on the object’s adjective, “a smeared,” reiterating its equivocal nature. Even assuming its form as that of a print, Atwood emphasizes that its content is likewise obscure: “blurred lines and grey flecks / blended with the paper” (4-5). The photograph’s defining characteristic seems to be that it is undefinable—the reader begins to comprehend that it is not really a photograph, or just a photograph; it represents something more multi-faceted.

Atwood closes the first stanza with a semi-colon, indicating its close relationship with the second stanza. In a metafictive vein like the photograph, the poem is also blurred, with the stanzas blending into each other in form and content. The persona is inserted into the poem extremely naturally, through the semicolon and the adverb and conjunction, “then, as you scan / it” (Atwood 6-7). The adverb and conjunction suggest that the reader has previously been present, scanning the photograph in the first stanza. Atwood blends the poem with reality to make progress in the imaginative, “you see in the left-hand corner” (7). Once more, the elements inside the photograph are indistinct, described through a simile, “a thing that is like a branch” (Atwood 8). Indeed, even this simile has flux, as the persona cannot decide the genus of the tree, “(balsam or spruce)” (Atwood 9). Despite this, Atwood is remarkably skilled in creating a mental image in the reader’s mind, as she continues to direct the reader, “and, to the right, half way up / what ought to be a gentle / slope, a small frame house” (10-12). Again, Atwood uses the same techniques from the first stanza: the persona is only able to describe in terms of what it ought to be; and enjambment again emphasizes the adjective rather than the concrete.

It is this that makes the third stanza so powerful. Suddenly, Atwood describes definitely and concretely: “In the background there is a lake, / and beyond that, some low hills” (13-14). The reader experiences deep unease about this. After all, the poem has been so careful to emphasize incertitude—this new definition is jarring and almost malevolent. Indeed, the concrete form of the lake and the low hills only magnifies the mysteriousness of their greater purpose and content. Atwood has shrewdly led the reader to experience resistance to singular form.

The second part of the poem begins here in parenthesis. For the first time, the persona uses the first person. “The photograph was taken / the day after I drowned” (Atwood 15-16). The reader senses some great shift incoming. Indeed, the form of the photograph is explicitly named for the first time in the poem, but its association with the persona’s death continues to obscure it content.

Atwood locates the persona in the photograph, but this actually achieves a subtle disorientation. In the previous stanzas, the persona has given the location of the photograph’s contents in relation to the photograph while obscuring its form and content. “I am in the lake, in the center / of the picture” (Atwood 17-18). Like the lake and the low hills, “I” is given form, but its greater meaning is still unknown. What is “I”? This culminates with the ambiguous final line of the fourth stanza, with the persona being “just under the surface” (Atwood 18). “Just under the surface” can be seen as a location in relation to the photograph, but it can also be a location in relation to the lake. In effect, “I” is as unknowable as the photograph and its contents.

Atwood confirms this multiplicity in form and content, “It is difficult to say where / precisely, / or to say / how large or small I am” (19-21). Form and content are ultimately irreconcilable. “The effect of water / on light is a distortion” (Atwood 22-23). The persona implies that it is the lake, the actual contents of the photograph, on the perceiving photons, or the form of the photograph, that is responsible for the flux. Effectively, Atwood is implying that the multiplicity of content and form means that combined, they cannot give singularity or meaning.

The photograph, its contents and “I” are only named thus; their form and content are ultimately ambiguous and incomprehensible. Atwood’s persona recognizes this, and this is the purpose of the final imperative at the close of the poem: “if you look long enough, / eventually / you will be able to see me” (24-26). True perception is in understanding and accepting this. The persona does not exist individually, but as a blurred part of the photograph, its contents and the greater context. The reader must accept the multiplicity of reality to understand his place in it.

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