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Casehistory : Alison (head injury). Read the poem. Things you should know. Autocratic = an autocrat is someone who is a dictator and who rules by his own power. An autocratic knee means that before her head injury she could control her physical movements. Things you should know.

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things you should know
Things you should know
  • Autocratic = an autocrat is someone who is a dictator and who rules by his own power. An autocratic knee means that before her head injury she could control her physical movements
things you should know1
Things you should know
  • A Degas dancer’s = Degas was a 19th century French painter whose paintings of ballet dancers show them as graceful and slim. The allusion in the poem suggests that Alison was like one of them before her head injury
the subheading
The subheading

The title and subheading are vital for the reader to understand what is happening

(She looks at her photograph)

By looking at the photograph we can see that Alison’s memory has been affected.

She can’t remember the person she used to be

stanza one
Stanza one

Alison is talking about herself. The use of the third person makes it clear to us that she is different to how she was

I would like to have known

My husband’s wife, my mother’s only daughter.

A bright girl she was.

‘was’ in the last line sounds awkward. This is so that we recognise that Alison is struggling to remember the past and her own identity.

stanza two
Stanza Two

In the present, Alison is fat. In the past, it is clear in this stanza that she was dainty and that her joints did what she wanted. The mention of the autocratic knee suggests that Alison is not in control of her body

Enmeshed in comforting

Fat, I wonder at her delicate angles.

Her autocratic knee

stanza three
Stanza Three

Simile to compare the way she looks now to before

Like a Degas dancer’s

Adjusts to the observer with airy poise,

That now lugs me upstairs

Now that she has put on weight, her knee struggles to get her upstairs

stanza four
Stanza four

The word hardly is delayed with enjambment until this stanza. This shows how her injury has affected her thought process too

Hardly. Her face, broken

By nothing sharper than smiles, holds in its smiles

What I have forgotten.

Alison has forgotten why she is smiling and has forgotten everything else too.

stanza five
Stanza five

Alison talks about her father’s death. It seems to have happened before her own injury because she detects in the smile in the photograph a sense that she had ‘digested mourning’, or got used to the sadness she felt

She knows my father’s dead,

And grieves for it, and smiles. She has digested

Mourning. Her smile shows it.


stanza six
Stanza six

The speaker needs reminding every morning who she is and what has happened to her

I, who need reminding

Every morning, shall never get over what

I do not remember.

She will never get over – or be healed from her accident – which she can’t remember

stanza seven
Stanza seven

This could suggest that she has to live a heavily structured life now because she can no longer think for herself

Consistency matters.

I should like to keep faith with her lack of faith,

But forget her reasons.

Faith is a word we associate with religion. This seems to suggest that Alison’s younger self did not believe in God. This is appropriate as this kind of injury is what forces us to question our belief in God.

Alison says she would like to have faith with her younger self’s lack of faith but can’t say why because she can’t remember what she lacked faith in when she was younger

stanza eight
Stanza Eight

The speaker is clearly aware of her former talent as she discusses her achievements before the accident and that she had a future to look forward to.

Proud of this younger self,

I assert her achievements, her A levels,

Her job with a future.

The future Alison looked forward to

stanza nine
Stanza Nine

This stanza is ironic because the one thing the speaker does know is that her former self will have to live with a head injury.

Poor clever girl! I know,

For all my damaged brain, something she doesn’t:

I am her future.

The future she now has

She will remain trapped like this forever.

stanza ten
Stanza Ten

The last line stands isolated at the end of the poem like Alison is isolated from life by her brain damage

A bright girl she was.

things to note
Things to note
  • The three line stanzas mimic the stuttered speech and thoughts of Alison now
  • Her mental dysfunction is shown through the way she refers to her former self in the third person – using ‘she’ and ‘her’
  • The different tenses also confuse matters
  • The title makes it sound like the poem is her medical record
  • The dramatic monologue is written in free verse
  • The title is ironic seen as Alison cannot remember anything about her past
the poem
The poem
  • Gives a voice to someone with brain damage
  • Explores the problems of memory
  • Compare the past to the present
  • Draws out attention to something we might otherwise ignore