Compare Margaret Atwood’s “This Is a Photograph of Me” to “Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer.” How do these poems comment on selfhood and the difficulties involved in establishing an identity?
Both of these poems reveal that establishing a sense of selhood and identity is something that is very difficult and hard to achieve. In "This is a Photograph of Me," inspite of the easy assurances of the speaker that we will see her picture, it is clear as the poem develops and the speaker reveals her true identity as a dead person that the clarity she seems to promise never emerges. The challenges in establishing a sense of identity are portrayed in the speaker's description of what the viewer will see as they look at the photo to begin with:
At first it seems to be
print: blurred lines and grey flecks
blended with the paper...
Clarity is something that has to be fought for and does not come easily. The difficulties of the reader trying to "see" the speaker are further compounded by the revelation that the speaker is actually dead, and the difficulties of identifying her in the photo are compounded by the "distortion" of the light. However, perhaps there is a vague hope as the poem ends with the promise that if the reader looks "long enough / eventually" they will see the speaker. Identity and selfhood can be established but only as a result of much time and effort.
Very little hope is given to the pioneer in "Porgressive Insanities of a Pioneer." He seems determined to stamp his identity on the soil where he is based, yet he is repulsed at every turn. For example, his efforts to sow his crops and tame the soil is shown to be futile:
It was like
enticing whales with a bent
Note the comparison and how pointless it is to try and fish for whales with nothing more than a "bent / pin" to attract them and catch them. In spite of all of his efforts to tame the soil and enact dominion on this Eden around him (and Atwood makes deliberate allusions to the Biblical story of creation, perhaps to mock the male prototype figure), the pioneer is shown in the last stanza to have failed in his attempt to establish a sense of identity and selfhood, as in the end he "foresaw his disintegration." The final image presents an unsettling vision of the wilderness around him reinvading the space he has tried to clear. Again, selfhood is presented as a struggle and a battle, and in this poem the speaker fails.