Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Living Photograph by Jackie Kay - An Analysis

Okay so this post is school/student related so, there will be no bashing nor bitching here.

If you are still reading this, then you are probably a Form 4 student, an English teacher or someone who is neither both but just in love with me.

So this year marks the new cycle of the English literature component for Form 4 and Form 1.

 One of the poems that is required to be taught is The Living Photograph by Jackie Kay.

Since there are no reference books yet, yours truly had so much free time to spent 'coz she's no longer planning the wedding of the year.  You're welcome.


The Living Photograph

My small grandmother is tall there,
straight-back, white broderie anglaise shirt,
pleated skirt, flat shoes, grey bun,
a kind, old smile round her eyes.
Her big hand holds mine,
white hand in black hand.
Her sharp blue eyes look her own death in the eye.

In the photograph, the persona's supposedly "small' grandmother is "tall'.  Her hunched back grandma (hence the word "small") was still youthful and "straight-back" and so she looks "tall" in the photo.  "Straight-back" could also signify she was poised and composed.  She is wearing a "white broderie anglaise shirt" and a "pleated skirt" which shows she was a woman of class, upper or middle.

She was a kind and loving person "kind, old smile..." and she accepted and loved the persona unconditionally - "Her big hand holds mine, white hand in black hand".  See Jackie Kay is half Scottish, half Nigerian, and she was adopted by a Scottish family.  The persona could be Ms Kay herself, or a character that she wants to portray as biracial, hence the "white hand in black hand".

The persona's grandma was a fiercely brave person, a person who wasn't afraid of death - "Her sharp blue eyes look her own death in the eye."

Note that her *spoiler* grandma is dead, and yet she refers to her in present tense.  This shows that she is alive in her heart, and that the state of her grandma in the photo is how she wants to remember her.

It was true after all; that look.
My tall grandmother became small.
Her back round and hunched.
Her soup forgot to boil.
She went to the awful place grandmothers go.
Somewhere unknown, unthinkable.

However, the persona's grandma didn't stay like that in the photo.  She started to grow older and develop a hunch back.  Dementia set in - "Her soup forgot to boil". And in the end, she died - "She went to the awful place grandmothers go."  As a kid, the persona didn't understand what that place was, it was just "unknown" and "unthinkable".

Note that in this stanza, the persona refers to her grandma in past tense when describing her actual state before dying.  As the grandma is described in past tense, this also shows that the persona is over the tragedy; and that this small, hunched back senile woman that was her grandma is now dead.

But there she is still,
in the photo with me at three,
the crinkled smile is still living, breathing.

Nonetheless, despite watching her grandma growing old and die, the memory of her still lives on.  The persona doesn't want to remember her grandma as old and senile, but she wants to remember her as how she was in the photo with her when she was three years old - poised, loving and fierce.  She will always be alive in her heart and the good memories will live on, noted by the use of present tense once again.

Two themes are clearly seen here.  One, it is the positive image people create in remembrance of a departed person.  The persona wants to remember her grandma as how she was in the photo, not the days before she died.  When our loved ones die, we no longer see the ugly side of a person, whether their physical appearance before dying (aging, diseased,bad plastic surgery), their horrible attitude (was a bitch/dick) or bad habits (substance abuse).  We will remember them in their prime age, the great things about them and their contribution to society.  Look at how all those hated, heavily criticised drug abusing, trash-talking, plastic surgery-loving celebrities are being revered and paid homage to only when in death.  We forget and forgive all their shortcomings, unfortunately, only when they die.

Another theme is the coping with grief and loss.  And one way to cope with grief and loss is to hang on to the good memories of a person, instead of remembering the painful way he or she died.  The persona who was struck with grief by the loss of her grandma found a way to cope with it - which is to keep it in her heart that although her grandma is not with her anymore physically, she is still alive in her heart.  This is probably the best way to deal with loss, by telling ourselves that even though that person is not with us anymore, he or she will always be with us in spirit.  Believing in it brings comfort and closure.


I hope you find my analysis helpful.  If there is anything you'd like to add or question, I'm open for discussion.

Stay tuned for the next poem analysis, The Charge of The Light Brigade (an extract) by Lord Tennyson.