Analyzing “The Family Portrait”
Kozain manages to depict the environment in which him and his characters live so that the reader receives a vivid picture of the scene where everything happens. Looking at the title one understands the general topic of the poem. It takes a similar format to a family portrait; different characters in the same setting, held together as a family and bound by circumstance. There is perhaps a hint of bitterness in the title as a family portrait is likely to be idealized and sentimental. The poem contradicts this notion by present a harsh reality, with the focus on the darker elements of life, using references to crime, drugs and so forth to emphasize this point.
There is use of South African terms and ideas, evident in the use of language such as “braaivleis”. The reference to mandrax is also more localized since it was particularly popular in South Africa amongst the poorer “classes”. This emphasis on the setting stresses the particular relevance of the subject to South Africa, sending its message to those who populate the country, and evoking the atmosphere which is so unique to the poverty-stricken underbelly of South African life.
From the beginning we get a glimpse of desperation and pain. This life is becoming too much for them to handle. Aunt May seeks oblivion like a frightened child. There is a feeling of claustrophobia in the “small kitchen” making her seem captive in her surroundings. The image of worn linoleum could be seen to draw parallels to the lives of the downtrodden masses, having their lives and freedom scraped away slowly by those who are allowed to grow stronger at the expense of the others. Again this is relevant to the huge rift between the “classes” in South Africa caused by the socio-political situation of the past.
The use of unpleasant, dirty imagery is common. The mood is “amber” orange tinted like an old photograph. The colours of the poem all seem dull and cloudy; worn away. The use of images such as “worn linoleum”, “braaivleis juice”, and “dogturds” creates an almost sordid atmosphere, evoking a feeling of sickness.
The idea of oblivion, of blocking things out is repeated in many instances. Some seek comfort in drugs to numb their minds, they block out the ways in which they themselves have erred, as well as the atmosphere in which they live, continuing life regardless of the vices they adopt to cope with the situation around them. The narrator has “switched off”, the mother has also “switched off”. In “closing their eyes” they block out the emotions and the reality in a form of sad desolate acceptance. The phrase “stroke their lashes according to the latest fashion” suggests a sort of pretence; the desperate wish to believe that everything is alright.
There is a distinct feeling of apathy, or rather of ideals and aspirations shattered by reality. Nothing is ever finished or complete. This can be seen in the inanimate surroundings; the way the house is represented as ramshackle and ill-kempt, and the unhinged door nobody seems to care to mend. Also in the situation of Gail and her husband unable to reach their own goals while burdened with a family. There is interesting use of words here; they are “two children strong” - an ironic way of putting it, since their own abilities to succeed in life are hindered by the children. They dream of finishing their education, but we can tell it is unlikely they will actually go through with this plan. Theirs is a world of unfulfilled dreams.
There is also apathy towards the standards of society. “Buckie” will not show guilt for his crime, still “waving to passers by” despite the implication in his friends suicide. He chooses apathy over awareness or emotion. Even marriage seems to be of little consequence here; phrases such as “her husband imported [his] latest lover” and “a friends wife now his lover” show a lack of caring about the emotion of the other, and disregard for obligation or moral. It is also once again a reference to vice, showing the decay of society. It seems the onslaught of the world around them has been too much. They simply do not care anymore.
Nevertheless a strange unity prevails. They are bound together by family and circumstance, all sharing the same broken down sense of despair; “broken togetherness” as the poet puts it, despite the seemingly underhand nature of many of the characters. Again a strange resignation to this way of life is evident. The blood “runs thin”, but it is still the same family blood upon which has been inflicted the same diseased society. It is still “thicker than water”.
The poem gives a very relevant statement about the lives of these people. Their actions may seem negligent, but at the same time all are victims, their ways provoked by society. It is an exploration of the loneliness and pain of those living in an unfair world, and how they in fact become part of it. The images of people, family and emotion turn the emphasis to the human aspect still strongly present in an inhuman environment.