Let’s read the poem-
The Living Photograph
Let’s read the poem-
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
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.
But there she is still,
in the photo with me at three,
the crinkled smile is still living, breathing.
Understanding the poem:
Stanza 1 tells us that in the photograph, grandmother looks “tall’ although she is supposed to be ‘small’. Her grandmother is still youthful and has a “straight-back”. She is wearing a “white broderie anglaise shirt” and a “pleated skirt” which shows that she is a woman of class, upper or middle. She is a kind and loving person. “Her big hand holds mine, white hand in black hand”-Perhaps, the writer and her grandmother come from different ethnic background. The persona’s grandmother was a very brave person as she was not afraid of death – “Her sharp blue eyes look her own death in the eye.” Note that the poet used the present tense to describe her grandmother.
In stanza 2, the persona refers to her grandma in past tense when describing her actual state before dying. Her grandmother began to grow older and develop a hunch back. She had become forgetful as dementia sets in – “Her soup forgot to boil” before she died – “She went to the awful place grandmothers go.” Perhaps as a young child, the persona didn’t understand what that place was, it was just “unknown” and “unthinkable”.
Stanza 3 describes how the poet wants to remember her grandmother. The memory of her grandmother will definitely live on but she doesn’t want to remember her as old and senile, but as how her grandmother was in the photo with her when she was only three years old. She will always be remembered with her smile. Note that the present tense is used once again.
Language and Style
The language is clear and easy to understand. The Style is simple and direct to the point. There isn’t any clear rhyme scheme.
Tone and Mood
The tone heads towards a sense of strong family relationships. There is a lot of thought and love felt in the poem.
Point of View
The persona uses the words ‘my’ and ‘me’. Thus, it is in the first person point of view.
The photograph symbolises the closeness between the grandmother and the persona. It highlights the feelings of the persona towards her grandmother.
Positive image people create in remembrance of a departed person. Just like the persona we remember our dearly departed persons by the great things about them. 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. We forget and forgive all their shortcomings, when they die.
Coping with grief and loss. One excellent way to cope with grief and loss is to cling on the good memories of a person, instead of remembering the bad. The persona coped with grief for the loss of her grandma by keeping it in her heart that although her grandma is not with her anymore physically, she is still alive in her heart. She celebrates her grandmother’s life.
We must appreciate close family members while they are still alive. The poem teaches us that we must spend time with our loved ones because when they are gone all that will be left are the memories of the time spent together.
The poet, Jackie Kay, is half Scottish, half Nigerian, and she was adopted by a Scottish family. The persona could be the poet Ms Jackie Kay herself, hence the “white hand in black hand”. The poet says that her grandmother is tall in the photo but later became ‘small’ as at the time the photo was taken her grandmother was younger. Her back was straight. Thus, she seemed taller. It could also be because the writer was very young at the time -about three years old as mentioned in the last stanza. As her grandmother grew older, her back became ‘round and hunched’. Therefore, she appeared ‘small’. Note that although the grandma is dead, she refers to her in the 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. In the first stanza, the grandmother is strong and healthy in the photograph while in the second stanza the grandmother is older and ill. In stanza 2, the grandmother is described in the past tense, this also shows that the persona is over the tragedy; and her grandma is now dead. Overall, the poem is about how a photograph immortalises a person. This is shown in the poem where she will always be remembered by the persona with the photograph although the grandmother is dead.