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Poem Summary: A Photograph by Shirley Toulson

A Photograph by Shirley Toulson is a heart-touching short poem about memories that we gather in our lives. Certainly we have no hold over time-span of our life but we can bring alive reminisces of bygone time through pictures and photographs. This poem is based on the similar lines. Let’s understand this poem briefly, stanza by stanza.

The cardboard shows me how it was
When the two girl cousins went paddling
Each one holding one of my mother’s hands,
And she the big girl – some twelve years or so.

In the first stanza, the poet is referring the photograph as a cardboard. The photograph has three girls, the bigger one is the poet’s mother, and other two small girls are her mother’s cousin. The small girls are holding the hands of her mother. And that time, according to the image in the photo, her mother was around twelve years old.
All three stood still to smile through their hair
At the uncle with the camera, a sweet face
My mother’s, that was before I was born
And the sea, which appears to have changed less
Washed their terribly transient feet.

This stanza describes the background of the picture, which is of the sea. The person who is taking their picture is the uncle of poet’s mother. It is clear that all three girls love sea vacation and they are at the seaside. The girls are smiling so wide that it seems their grin is about to touch their side hair. Also, the poet expresses that the sweet face of her mother is of before marriage, when the poet wasn’t born. They are standing at the sea line, in the waters, as the tides are washing their transient feet. Here transient means changeable i.e. that one day these girls will grow up and their feet will grow in size as well. The poet has emphasized on one prominent nature of life i.e. change. Thus, she says that the sea changes less with time but humans have to change, which is something inevitable.
She’d laugh at the snapshot. “See Betty
And Dolly,” she’d say, “and look how they
Dressed us for the beach.” The sea holiday
was her past, mine is her laughter. Both wry
With the laboured ease of loss.

This stanza is based on imagination the poet makes for her mother. The poet assumes what would be her mother’s reaction upon seeing this photograph after many years. She would have made laugh of it. Further, the poet says that sea holiday was her mother’s past and the poet’s past was her mother’s laughter. They both (poet and her mother) laugh at their losses while accepting the truth of time.

Now she’s has been dead nearly as many years
As that girl lived. And of this circumstance
There is nothing to say at all,
Its silence silences.

The last stanza is bit melancholy because it talks about the death of her mother. The poet puts that her mother is dead for as long as the age of that girl in the photograph. It means her mother died twelve years ago, because in the photograph the bigger girl seems to be around twelve. The topic of death is so morbid that the poet feels that its silence sounds silent, it is a thing of paradox.


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