In, “Leaping into the Unknown: The Poetics of Robert Bly’s Deep Image,” Kevin Bushnell explores the use of an image in Bly’s poems. Bushnell demonstrates how Bly used images as a way into the speaker’s psychological state, the speaker’s unconscious mind, and how this, for Bly and others of the “Confessional” school of poets, became a common theme among them. These poets often sought to portray, through their lyric/verse, the underlying psychology of their speakers, typically without positively defining such a state of mind. In order to do this, they used images that they hoped would reach into the reader’s mind and offer a subconscious glimpse into the psyche not only of the poem/the speaker but also within the reader. Bushnell focused on Robert Bly, but taking a cue from Bushnell’s analysis, it is certainly possible to extend such a psychological reading into other poets’ work, specifically those associated with the Confessional poets, which is what I will set out to do here, focusing on “Mementos, 1,” by W.D. Snodgrass.
In keeping with the theme of an inciting image, Snodgrass opens his poem with a vague image that becomes more focused and more relatable, thus bringing the reader closer to his speaker, psychologically. In order to adequately demonstrate how Snodgrass accomplishes his deep image use in terms of speaker/reader psychological underpinnings, I find it necessary to include the entire poem in this analysis (so, please bear with me through the long quotes). I will move through the poem stanza by stanza, beginning with the first.
The poem begins,
“Sorting out letters and piles of my old
Canceled checks, old clippings, and yellow note
That meant something once, I happened to find
Your picture. That picture. I stopped there cold,
Like a man raking piles of dead leaves in his yard
Who has turned up a severed hand.” (ll. 1-7)
This is the entire first stanza, ending with a period, which provides us with both a real image, an inferential one, and then a simile that drives the psychological resonance of the poem. The first line establishes a moment in time, giving us an imagined image of a person perhaps sitting on the floor with a pile of old mementos. The second line almost provides a representation of these items stacked up, as the words stack together in a list, but the psychological import begins at the line, “That meant something once.” Here, we can easily imagine ourselves, as well as the speaker, in this situation; who hasn’t been in a similar situation? Looking through old papers, boxes of old notes or pictures, etc., experiencing feelings of nostalgia while realizing how such items can bring us directly back to another moment in time within our minds, remembering how much we cared about things often long forgotten, things we hardly now remember ever even wanting to keep? With these few sparse lines, Snodgrass brings us to this image, as well as this psychological connection, which he does through the use of a common, relatable scenario. That line is separated by a comma (“That meant something once, I happened to find”), which marks a subtle turn in the poem, in the image of weeding through old keepsakes, and it brings to mind those moments during such occasions in which we find something that is either exciting or powerful or otherwise impactful, or that is somehow mournful. In the speaker’s case, much as it often is in life, the change from dry documents to an emotional jolting comes by way of a photograph.
For the speaker, as well as the imagination of the reader, the photo is a powerful reminder of something now in the past, something that was once a major factor in life, that once dominated the mind. The final simile of the stanza sets the tone, the mood associated with the memory brought by the picture, the shock of being transported back to a very different time in life. Snodgrass uses “cold” and “dead,” which leads to the shock that would occur if we found a severed (dead) hand. The image of the simile is precisely related to the content of the central image, too; sitting, almost mindlessly moving through a pile of old mementos, like almost mindlessly raking a yard, and then finding something jolting that abruptly demands and captures attention. The period at the end of the stanza represents the pause, a numb moment of reflection, the moment in our minds before conscious thought catches up, as we move into the next stanza.
“Still, that first second, I was glad: you stand
Just as you stood—shy, delicate, slender,
In that long gown of green lace netting and daisies
That you wore to our first dance. The sight of you
Us all. Well, our needs were different, then,
And our ideals came easy.” (ll. 8-14)
This stanza represents the typical reality of such a discovery buried in a pile of old (let’s face it) probably trash. Like the speaker, we often first recall the pleasantries surrounding the image: Oh that was such a fun day or I forgot all about that! or Wow, I can’t believe I still have this. Snodgrass accomplishes this psychological moment by using pleasant words, even writing “I was glad,” and the tone moves into a more nostalgic mode. Like in the image, now the literal image for the speaker on top of our image of the speaker sitting and being shocked by finding the photo, the speaker recalls being stunned by the sight of the lady in the picture, just as the speaker is stunned in the present finding the picture. This rendering of layered shock, moving from a menial task performed almost mindlessly to a cold shock to a fond recollection that happens to also recall another moment of being stunned, brilliantly portrays the complex psychological experience occurring subconsciously during a moment like that being described in the poem, one that is so well crafted that we can not only understand the underlying psychology but can also experience it ourselves if we sift through our memory.
This stanza likewise ends in a period, as the speaker begins to shift in mentality (“Well, our needs were different, then,”) yet again, signaling for us, the reader, that we are about to learn at least partially why the past life of the speaker in which the lady in the photo was central, is now far in the past. If, at the period to end the first stanza, we can imagine the speaker leaning back, perhaps jaw dropped, at the sight of the picture, leading to a pause, then at the end of this stanza, we may imagine the speaker shaking his head in a gesture that either represents the overall nostalgia, the loss of love/radical change in the course of a life, or perhaps both and more. We can come to this imagined image precisely because of the way Snodgrass subtly exposes the psychological state of the speaker. The third stanza does not subvert our expectations of being clued-in to the fallout between the speaker and the lady in the photo.
“Then through the war and those two long years
Overseas, the Japanese dead in their shacks
Among dishes, dolls, and lost shoes; I carried
This glimpse of you, there, to choke down my
Prove it had been, that it might come back.
That was before we got married.” (ll. 15-21)
This stanza brings us into a separation, but not just a psychological one, a physical one, too. The speaker is at war, separated for two years from the lady in the picture, and Snodgrass uses stacked images in list format (like in the first stanza) to parallel the first not only in structure but also, in a sense, the psychological representations. In the first stanza, discovering the photo was what stunned the speaker, but in this third stanza, the discovery of the photo brings some level of peace during a time of chaos, a time that we can easily imagine bearing deep psychological impacts for the speaker. It is not the lady being represented here, in this third stanza, but again the image of her, the literal picture, the image now of the speaker pulling the photo out of his pocket, in a military uniform, and glancing at it periodically for strength.
This, like the other two stanzas so far, paints a complex psychological picture that we can both understand and not fully understand at once; still, somehow, we can feel it, somewhere just below consciousness. Again, this stanza ends with a period, as, again, the speaker pauses, perhaps silently ruminating on this memory (and after a subtle shift yet again into the next phase of this moment in the speaker’s present, the actual moment of the speaker sitting before a pile of mementos: “That was before we got married”), before shifting into the next psychological impression, the next stanza.
“—Before we drained out one another’s force
With lies, self-denial, unspoken regret
And the sick eyes that blame; before the divorce
And the treachery. Say it: before we met. Still,
I put back your picture. Someday, in due course,
I will find that it’s still there.” (ll. 22-27)
This, perhaps the most powerful stanza of them all, portrays the moment when we realize why the image has become a part of the past, when we inevitably remember the fallout, and Snodgrass does a great job in this portrayal. Notice, too, that this stanza breaks from the structural pattern of the prior stanzas; perhaps this move indicates, through a missing line, that there is something unspoken, something just out of reach within the conscious mind. He brings up the highlights from a single perspective but does not place any of these faults on either the speaker or the lady in the picture. We are left, like the speaker, not knowing where the blame lies, or even whether the speaker knows; all we know, perhaps like the speaker, is that all the elements of the fallout between these two are recognized, at least from the speaker’s perspective. We know there was a divorce, we know there was treachery, and we know there were lies, self-denial, and unspoken regret. We also know that the speaker must have returned after a two-year period at a bloody war.
The speaker, has a powerful moment of realization: “Say it: before we met.” This indicates that perhaps there existed already within the speaker (or the lady) emotional baggage that either carried some of these disastrous elements of the fallout or that led to them. Now, that emotional baggage rests within the speaker’s mind, currently consciously but even more so deeply subconsciously. The final lines spectacularly capture this sentiment, while also bringing us to yet another deeply psychological representation through an image. The last lines, “Still, / I put back your picture. Someday, in due course, / I will find that it’s still there,” taken alone would probably not conjure much of an emotionally charged conceptualization. However, because we have just gone through this journey through the speaker’s psychology, and in a way that allows us to become aware of our own, these lines are quite powerful and informative. The speaker puts the picture back, both physically and psychologically, back into the pile of mementos and back into the recesses of his mind. The image of the lady is still with the speaker both physically and mentally, both consciously and subconsciously. The last revelation, “Someday, in due course, / I will find that it’s still there,” illuminates the psychological significance of the entire poem; the speaker buries these memories, like the photo, but they nevertheless remain within him.
This is powerful because it does just what Bushnell points out that the Confessional poets (Bly, in his case) attempt to achieve: finding a way, often through an image/images, to uncover and represent the subconscious mind, the psychology present in their speakers, themselves, and universally. In Snodgrass’s poem, this psychological resonance lingers just below the surface, as it does within us all; it is something we can feel, come close to understanding, and almost put into words (but not quite fully). The speaker puts the picture back, and “will find that it’s still there,” but this has a dual meaning; he will one day find that the photo remains where he left it, and he will find that the image still exists within his mind. Here, Snodgrass depicts, through a simple image of finding an old picture, how the past remains with us, how it impacts our psychological makeup, and how even if we are aware of these parcels of psychological building blocks (or blockages), we can often only set them aside and move on, like the speaker in “Mementos, 1,” where they remain a piece of our psychological being.