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In the poem A Photograph (written by Shirley Toulson), I didn't understand some sentences.

In the first stanza, the poet says,

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.
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.

In the second stanza, the poet says

Some twenty — thirty — years later
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.

In the third stanza, the poet says

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

What are the meanings of the sentences highlighted in bold?

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...The sea holiday
Was her past, mine is her laughter.

This is as you say, technastic_tc.

The holiday was then in her mother's past: her mother's laughter is now in the daughter's past. Her mother remembers the holiday: the daughter remembers the laughter.

Her mother mocks the old fashioned beachwear, laughing to conceal her pain at remembering long-gone days. The daughter's happy memory of her mother's laughter, as well as what it hid, is both happy and sad. So their memories are bittersweet, mixing happiness with a sense of loss.

...Both wry
With the laboured ease of loss:

Wryness is closely associated with irony: something is revealed by its very concealment. Presumably the poet smiles when she first remembers her mother laughing.

'laboured' means "done with great difficulty." 'ease' means "absence of discomfort."

So it means, "Both trying to hide - but revealing - the difficulty with which we ease our pain."

BTW, as 'ease' can also mean 'absense of difficulty', there is a suggestion of the apposition of with difficulty / without difficulty, echoing that of their bitter/sweet thoughts.

...And of this circumstance
There is nothing to say at all.
Its silence silences.

The circumstance - her mother dying quite young, when the poet was only in her mid-twenties - saddens her so much that she cannot speak of it. Both she and her mother are silenced by it.

Just as the poet mentions the absence of sound, the sound of the sea creeps into the final line, harking back to the last lines of the first verse and saying more than she can.

By the way, 'transient feet' could be a reference to the poem itself. When 'feet' are mentioned in a poem, you do wonder!

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  • I was checking the meaning of wry online and I found an obsolete meaning: To cover; clothe; cover up; cloak; hide (yourdictionary.com/wry). Can we say that both the mother and the daughter are hiding their emotions with great difficulty and easing their pain? – technastic_tc Aug 26 at 12:15
  • You've said: "Both she and her mother are silenced by it." How can a dead person (mother) be silenced by something? – technastic_tc Aug 26 at 12:17
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    Her mother is silenced by the circumstance of being dead, the daughter by the circumstance of her mother having been dead for nearly as many years as she was alive. – Old Brixtonian Aug 26 at 15:30
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    This defines 'foot': en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foot_(prosody). Feet are the basic rhythmic units used in poetry. For example, an 'iamb' (one type of foot) has a weak beat followed by a strong one. There are three iambs in "To be or not to be" and four in your poem's first line. So when Toulson speaks of 'transient feet' she might also be referring to the poem itself: she doesn't expect it to live forever. – Old Brixtonian Aug 26 at 15:49
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    No, we really can't say that. If the poet had wanted to say that, she might have used the similar word 'wreathe', which has your exact meaning and is NOT obsolete. 'Wry' doesn't mean 'wreathe' today. What's more, in its obsolete sense of "to cover; clothe; cover up; cloak; hide" it is clearly the infinitive of a verb, so it would need to be in the third person: wryen, perhaps. And it would then need a direct object, otherwise it would mean 'they both cover (themselves) up', which they don't. – Old Brixtonian Aug 27 at 0:02
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A couple of comments have led me to believe I probably should have made my answer clearly.

Yes, the poem is written in the first person. That is to say the entire poem is a first-person narrative, told from the perspective of the poet, Shirley Toulson. This is made abundantly clear in the first stanza:

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.

"I" refers to the poet herself. This is first-person narration. And focus of the poem is on the mother and the daughter (Toulson)'s connection with the mother.

The sea holiday
Was her past, mine is her laughter.

"Mine" refers to my (the poet's) past corresponding to "her past". Now let's turn to your troubling lines:

Both wry / With the laboured ease of loss.

"Both" refers to both the mother's past and the mother's laughter. Both are wry and both with labored ease of loss. Why wry? Note that wry has a strong denotation of distortion and has the sense of "twisted", "bent", "abnormal", "deliberate", which makes it a perfect reverberant point echoing two words that follow: "labored" and "loss". The mood is nostalgic and melancholy. Both her past and her laughter are twisted because it is the loss of our childhood, out past, and our beloved ones that we have to grapple with. Hence the "labored ease". We need to and will eventually come to terms with our loss but it takes work for us to reach inner peace with those losses.

At the end of the poem lies the verse you quote. That verse reveals to us the mother has been dead for many years "as many years / As that girl lived". The mood is sorrowful and mournful. The poet is missing her mother. She mourns her passing by starting the poem on a happy, celebratory note in the first stanza, slowly coming to a pensive and melancholy second stanza, and ending on a lugubrious note.

And of this circumstance
There is nothing to say at all.
Its silence silences.

This circumstance, as Old Brixtonian has pointed out, refers to the fact that her mother died at a young age. The approximate age the mother died at is "hidden" in something of a riddle in the poem. Let's decipher it:

And she the big girl — some twelve years or so.

Then in the second stanza:

Some twenty — thirty — years later
She’d laugh at the snapshot.

The mother would have been anywhere between 32 and 42. The third stanza tells us:

Now she’s been dead nearly as many years
As that girl lived.

So her mother has been dead for about 12 years. Since we don't know how much time has elapsed since the poet and the mother shared a moment looking at the old photo, it is unclear how old exactly the mother was when she passed. But the idea that the mother died young, was cut down in her prime, is clear. That is what "this circumstance" is. The pronoun its also points here. This situation.

There is nothing more to be said, declares the poet who sits in silent mourning of her mother. The silence is sorrowful and full of happy memories and lingering thoughts. The silence itself silences [more words].

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    I think the poem is written in first person pronoun. "The sea holiday was her past": 'her' refers to poet's mother. "..mine is her laughter": The word 'mine' talks about the poet. 'her laughter' refers to the poet's mother's laughter. The poet's mother's laughter is the poet's past because her mother is no longer alive and even her mother's laughter can never be heard again. – technastic_tc Aug 23 at 5:47
  • To be honest, the meaning of wry is confusing to me. And what does the word "Both" refer to? What is the meaning of 'easing into a pensive'? What do the words "Of this circumstance" refer to? What is the meaning of "Its silence silences"? – technastic_tc Aug 23 at 5:48
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    "We need to and will eventually come to terms with our loss but it takes work for us to reach inner peace with those losses." There is no suggestion that Shirley Toulson thought any such thing! I strongly disagree with the imposition of a 2020 mindset on a poem untainted by pious psychobabble. – Old Brixtonian Aug 23 at 13:36
  • @OldBrixtonian I based my interpretation on several key words, including "labored" and "wry". "Labored ease" led me to believe there is reconciliation implied. 2020 mindset? Sorry I don't agree. It's quite the opposite. Finding inner peace, finding a solution is a rather old mindset. One of the key innovations of "postmodernism" (note: I am using this word in a loose sense. If I want to channel Baudrillard or Derrida I will but not today) is to break with the "final solution" that was common in the "old days". – Eddie Kal Aug 23 at 14:56
  • @technastic_tc "I think the poem is written in first person pronoun." The poem is written in the first person, not the first person pronoun, but that is minor. That is implied in my answer. All that is pretty much what my answer says. I didn't say this explicitly because I assumed you understood that part. I led with a technicality that is ignored by you and the other answer. "Both" refers to both the mother's past and the mother's laughter. I will make my answer clearer. – Eddie Kal Aug 23 at 15:10
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Eddie Kal and Old Brixtonian explained the doubts asked in the question. But I wanted to add the meaning of 'terribly transient feet'.

I found the meaning of 'terribly transient feet' from here.

Everything has changed since then, her mother grew up; now she was dead and the poet was reviving her memories. The only thing that has remained unchanged is the sea which was washing the feet of all three girls. The mention of the word ‘transient’ indicates the ever-changing lives of human beings as well as the shortness of their stay on this World, in contrast to the eternality of nature. The girls’ life changed drastically during this period but the sea has not changed. The stanza beautifully explains the transient nature of human beings.

‘Transient feet’ is an example of the transferred epithet in the poem. It refers to human feet but it is used to describe the lack of permanence of human life.

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