The Subtle Horror of Margaret Atwood’s ‘This Is a Photograph of Me’

Joe Penney / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I could have picked any number of wonderful poems, but the first that popped to mind was one I found five years ago in a poetry book I randomly bought at a used bookstore in Oakland. (The shop’s name is too good not to mention: Walden Pond Books. Looking back, maybe it was a sign that I would one day write for the same publication as Thoreau ... )

Anyway. The book I picked up was The Circle Game by Margaret Atwood; the poem I’m thinking of, “This Is a Photograph of Me,” was the first in the collection. It gave me major goosebumps then, and it’s given me chills every time I’ve read it since.

The poem begins with a few stanzas of the speaker describing an old photograph in great detail: “It was taken some time ago.” The print looks a bit “smeared.” You can “see in the left-hand corner a thing that is like a branch.” There’s a glimpse of “a small frame house,” “a lake,” and “beyond that, some low hills.”

And then, the twist, which hits like a sledgehammer:

(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.

I am in the lake, in the center
of the picture, just under the surface.

It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or small I am:
the effect of water on light
is a distortion

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

First: How terrifying is that? As if learning the speaker is dead—no, drowned—weren’t enough, the reader/viewer is told that all along she’s been “looking” at a photograph of the body. The mundane, orderly beginning to the poem feels a bit like a homeowner giving a gentle, if slightly boring, tour of a perfectly nice house: We just got these frosted sconces; the guest bathroom is at the end of the hall on the left; we love the backsplash, too. The seemingly straightforward title doesn’t hint at the haunting direction the poem will take, even though you’re waiting for Atwood to finally describe the figure of a person. Before readers know it, they’re complicit in something awful and unexplained.

Once you’ve had a moment to collect yourself, you can perhaps see how “This Is a Photograph of Me” plays with notions of identity, visibility, passivity, and words versus image. It invites the reader to recognize the speaker, who is silent and invisible while making herself both seen and heard. The beauty of the natural landscape (the ripple of water, the refraction of sunlight) almost totally obscures her—but you nonetheless feel her specter viscerally. Even if, like me, you want to turn away rather than stare long enough to actually “see” her.

Maybe others won’t feel the same sudden anxiety I did when they read this for the first time, but I’ll always see “This Is a Photograph of Me” as a subtle work of horror. The shift halfway in isn’t a jump-scare; its force is more insidious and paralyzing. But now that I reflect on this poem years after first encountering it, I can also find something curiously tragic in it. The speaker seems lost, alone, and less ghoulish than I first thought. She introduces herself in parentheses as if whispering for someone to witness, if not the fullness of her life, then at least the fact of her death.