Comment on the major thematic concerns of Margaret Atwood’s poems, "This is a Photograph of Me" and "Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer."

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  • "This is a photograph of me"

In this poem there is the theme of Appearance vs. Reality. Key to the understanding of this poem is the title because apparently there is no picture of a woman in it. So the speaker must tell the viewer the significance of something that cannot be seen; furthermore, when she does "explain," the explanation defies rationality.

There are several interpretations of this poem; certainly, there are feminist images and themes to be found. But, at the least, the speaker may feel insignificant as she is subsumed in the photograph and the viewer needs a teller to know that she is there. It is, thus, paradoxical that she should say "This is a photograph of me" when the "me" is not visible. Nevertheless, she is there as affirmed by the speaker. This poem also points to the fact that the supposed reality of a photograph is only in the eye of the viewer. Each person who views a photograph or picture may see different things. So, what is real for one may not be so for another. In parentheses, which suggests added wisdom,

but if you look long enough,
eventually
you will be able to see me.

It is not always through the eyes that one "sees"; sometimes one must look with the memory of one's heart.
  • "Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer"

In this poem, Atwood seems to mock the "pioneer," who by definition brings progress to a pristine area. With the touch of man, who builds fences and houses and breaks ground for gardens comes progress. But, this progress is insane because the innate savagery of the land remains intact.

Thus, the theme of this poem is the conflict between nature and man. Ironically, Atwood employs the metaphor of water to the land in order to emphasize that there can be no real boundaries cut in the wilderness.

If he had known unstructured 
space is a deluge
and stocked his loghouse-
boat with all the animals

Even the wolves 
he might have floated 

But obstinate he 
stayed. The land is solid
and stamped,

watching his foot sink
down through stone
up to the knee. 

Nor can the pioneer name things that belong to the wild.

Things
refused to name themselves; refused
to let him name them....

through eyes made ragged by his effort
effort, the tension
between subject and object

the green
vision, the unnamed 
whale invaded.

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