Casehistory: Alison (head injury) • Imagine you were looking at a photograph of yourself, perhaps as a small child, what sort of words would you use to describe yourself? I would like to have known My husband's wife, my mother's only daughter. A bright girl she was. Enmeshed in comforting Fat, I wonder at her delicate angles. Her autocratic knee Like a Degas dancer's Adjusts to the observer with airy poise, That now lugs me upstairs Hardly. Her face, broken By nothing sharper than smiles, holds in its smiles What I have forgotten. She knows my father's dead, And grieves for it, and smiles. She has digested Mourning. Her smile shows it. I, who need reminding Every morning, shall never get over what I do not remember. Consistency matters. I should like to keep faith with her lack of faith, But forget her reasons. Proud of this younger self, I assert her achievements, her A levels, Her job with a future. Poor clever girl! I know, For all my damaged brain, something she doesn’t: I am her future. A bright girl she was. The poem is about Alison, a woman who has suffered brain damage after an accident. Her memory has been badly affected. Alison looks at a photograph of her younger self and talks about the person in it as if she were someone else. Although her memory has been affected, her vocabulary and understanding are still impressive. However, the narrator is far removed from the woman in the photograph taken before the accident. The Alison of today has one advantage over the Alison of the past: today's brain-damaged woman knows what lies ahead for the woman in the photograph. Form • This poem is a dramatic monologue; the poet chooses a character, Alison, to be the narrator. Alison has suffered brain damage after an accident. Structure • The poem is set out as nine, three-line stanza and closes with a single line. The middle line of each stanza is always noticeably longer than the other two. Sound • Although at first the poem might sound like a conversation, it becomes clear that Alison is talking to herself. There are a lot of short sentences that show how Alison is taking her time, either because she chooses to or because of her condition. This poem lends itself to a slow reading with plenty of pauses. Context • Ursula Askham Fanthorpe (1929-2009) was a very successful student and gained a first class honours degree in English Language and Literature at Oxford University. She then became a teacher, working for 16 years at Cheltenham Ladies' College. • Fanthorpe left teaching and tried a job as a clerk at a Bristol hospital. The hospital used to specialise in problems with the brain, spine and nervous system. It was around this time, in 1974, that Fanthorpe began writing poetry seriously. She was responsible for keeping patients' records and used some of the material from these as inspiration for her poems. Fanthorpe became very interested in how hospitals could reduce people and their experiences to a few notes, known by doctors as 'case histories'. • Although she started to write for publication quite late (her first volume Side Effects was published in 1978), Fanthorpe produced several more volumes up to her death at the age of 79 Look at the pronouns. • How does the poet separate the girl in the photograph from the women who has suffered brain damage even though they are the same person? Attitudes • The reader has to separate the poet's attitude from the attitude(s) of Alison. Fanthorpe was motivated to write these poems because she felt that the patients were more than a set of doctor's notes or a "casehistory". They each had a story to tell, even if neither Fanthorpe or the patient could fully describe that story. • The present Alison has a mixture of attitudes. She is fond of the past Alison and admires her, "I would like to have known... A bright girl she was". But she also feels sorry for her, "Poor clever girl! I know,/For all my damaged brain, something she doesn't:/I am her future". • The present Alison is also - understandably - bitter and confused about what she has become, "I, who need reminding/Every morning, shall never get over what/I do not remember". Key Themes (remember to include evidence to support each one) Themes • Loss: the present Alison has lost her ability to function properly both physically ("fat... lugs me upstairs") and mentally. And she has lost her father, who has died. Alison has also lost her future and all the good things that could have been. • Life is fragile: the past Alison seemed to have everything going for her. She certainly had intelligence (as she shows even in her present state) and was also physically agile ("Her autocratic knee/Like a Degas dancer's/Adjusts to the observer with airy poise"). Her accident could have happened to anybody. • We should not judge people on what they appear to be: the doctors will have produced a case history about Alison that only partially describes who she actually is. She was once very different in all sorts of ways. Ideas • People should not judge others merely on their situation. Society might even abandon some people for this reason. People often have far more to offer than we might realise. • Plus, there is something universal (affecting everyone) suggested in this poem (even though Alison’s situation is extreme): one day we will all look back on an earlier photograph of ourselves and realise that we were a very different person then... though hopefully not because of traumatic circumstances like those that affected Alison. The poet wants to show the contrast between the two Alisons of past and present and make clear how the injury has affected her life. Annotate the juxtaposition in the poem. enmeshed in comforting fat... delicate angles airy poise... lugs me upstairs Her face, broken... Smiles clever girl... Damaged brain Now circle the words that are used to reflect loss. When lots of words with similar connotations or a theme are used throughout a text it is called a semantic field.