Ursula Fanthorpe was a highly qualified, Oxford graduate teacher before leaving her job at a leading English Girl’s Independent school to work at a hospital in Bristol that specialised in brain and spinal injuries. She became interested in the medical case-histories and how hospitals reduce patients' complex lives and personalities to technical notes — essential for their care but in a sense de-humanising.
The poem is a dramatic monologue about Alison, a young woman suffering the after-effects of a head injury. Her present-day self looks at a photograph of her former self and describes how she feels about the person she was and how the injury changed her. It is almost an elegy, a lament spoken by the present Alison who is mourning her former self.
Structure Nine three-line stanzas known as tercets, in this case unrhymed. The middle line in each tercet is longer than the two adjacent lines, giving a choppy, uneven flow that may reflect Alison’s disrupted and now broken life.
Voice Alison speaks in short sentences and broken phrases, maybe because of her condition.
Life’s fragility and dangers
The universality of looking back at our former selves and coping with the change
Case History: Alison (Head Injury)
(She looks at her photograph)
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 an 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.
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 first thing I am noticing when I view this poem for the first time is the title. This is something you need to consider with every poem in the anthology. Some have real meaning, like the Agard poem, where he is checking out his identity. Others, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, tell you very little. Others lead you on into the poem expecting a certain something to happen. Therefore, the title of a poem is extremely worth writing about and is something that a lot of students fail to do in exams [I have marked them don’t forget] to the detriment of their marks. Sometimes the 2 marks missing where a comment could have been made can be the difference between the C and the D grade.
This poem has one of those titles where you think to yourself, okay, now that is a little weird for a title. It is more like a title for a description of a patient, or an essay on the clinical needs and dependencies of a patient. So the first thing to note is that from the very beginning, the poem has the reader at somewhat of a disadvantage [but do not read it quickly like I did first time]. This is continued as we read the words in parenthesis, or, in brackets. We see that one person is looking at a photograph that she owns and is then thinking, out loud when read as a poem. So these words are the thoughts of that person, as she considers the photograph in her hands. She says “I would like to have known my husband’s wife, my mother’s only daughter,” which sounds a little odd and in line with the oddities of the title we looked at earlier. “My husband’s wife” is a statement that sounds wrong, unless the person she was married to was married before their marriage, or even if it was a bigamous marriage on the man’s part [see the comment at the end of this description as the light bulb moment hit me]. Either way, the woman considers how she would like to get to know her because she was “a bright girl,” which shows affection for the woman in question in the first verse. This theme of wondering about this other woman is developed in the next three lines as she considers how the other wife was “enmeshed in comforting fat,” which alas, does suggest she was of the more Matronly figure.
She is looking at a photograph here in this poem, which has just set alarm bells in my head because we recently read another poem where something like this was happening. If you remember the context of My Last Duchess, by Robert Browning, you see here a major similarity and one that you may consider when writing in the exam. If your exam question says something like write about My Last Duchess and one other poem of your choice you have one here that you could use to compare and contrast well. Both have a character looking at an image of a wife. Both have a person considering her beauty, her pose, the way she looks on the image in front of them. In this one, the woman considers the lady’s “delicate angles” and “autocratic knee.” Autocratic means a ruler who has absolute power, so she has the power over her husband, a power to control him, to make him love her, to change the direction of his gaze if needs be. This is one good looking woman, even given her statuesque figure.
She has legs “like a Degas dancer,” and “adjusts to the observer with an airy poise.” She is the epitome of perfection to the man in her life and has the ability to hold in her smile what a person forgets. She is impressive in every way. The woman thinks and knows that the woman in the photo “knows [that her] father’s dead” and as such, she has mourned and grieved for that person. She is a person who has the ability to share her emotions with the world. She is so alike to the Duchess in the Browning poem. The rather beautiful comment that “she has digested mourning” is one that in essence, shows a compassionate and understanding woman who is able to have sympathy and empathy with others around her. She is the sort of person you want in your life, or was! There is that sense of one-ship in her smile, her radiating smile. Not only is she bright and lovely to know, but the lady observing the photo is someone who needs “reminding every morning” because she “shall never get over what [she does] not remember.”
Now we begin to see something different happening in the poem because “consistency matters” in this person’s life. Suddenly, there is a lightbulb moment in this ageing head of mine [oh boy, did it come as a surprise to me when it hit] as I see the truth of the poem and the truth of the situation this lady finds herself in. There are times when I need to sit down and look through some old photographs. As I do so, I begin to remember again the memories I thought I had forgotten, memories of my time before my car crash in 2010 when I passed into unconsciousness and ‘died’ at the scene only to be revived by the paramedics. I have no idea how long I was wherever I ‘went’ in those moments but when I was lurched back into reality, the twelve different head injuries began to exhibit their pain on me, a pain I can remember to this day. So, when I now see this woman and I consider the title once again and how it has the words “head injury” in brackets, I see a woman who is staring at a photo of herself when she was younger, married to the man of her life and seeing her “husband’s wife, [her] mother’s only daughter” and she considers just how much of a “bright girl she was” before the brain injury.
Now, she is a woman who would “like to keep faith with her lack of faith” back in those days of happiness, but she cannot remember “her reasons” or the pride she once had as she achieved glory in her exams and landed the “job with a future.” She looks back and can see only a faded image in her mind, a shady old photograph in her memory that is full of gaps that were brought on by the head injury. My memory sometimes plays tricks on me as well, so I share her despair here at not being able to reach out and make contact with that person of old. After such a head injury, you become a different person, good or bad. You have to make adjustments. You have to operate in a different way. Life becomes something you have to learn how to do all over again, rather like learning to walk all over again with false legs.
“For all [her] damaged brain,” she is all too aware that the future holds something different for her. From “bright girl” and having passed her “A Levels,” she now has to look forward to a life bereft of achievement, or one that she simply does not want to lead. Now here, I see myself in this poem looking back at my old photographs and I sense the heartache and despair of this woman as she looks forward without a sense of hope. “I am her future,” she says but then, using what could be termed an oxymoron, she adds again the repeated words “a bright girl she was.” It is that use of the past tense that for me, makes this such a heart rending poem. It shows and shares a feeling of woe after an accident of some kind leading to a brain injury that has left this once active and very clever woman in a situation that no-one would ever wish on their worst enemy. This is why this is such a good poem because it makes the reader consider just how they would live in such circumstances!