Claribel Alegría’s poem “Accounting” was first published in English by Curbstone Press in 1993 as part of a collection of poems in her book, Fugues. Although only twenty-six lines in length, the poem is saturated with a collection of autobiographical images as diverse as her happiness as a child, playing in puddles of water, and her grief at her mother’s death. Alegría refers to the vignettes in her poem as “electrical instants.” These snapshots of her life are only brief moments, but they tell the poet’s own story. The title, “Accounting,” can refer to the systematic presentation of the data that comprises her life. That is what accountants do. They examine financial data, list and interpret it, and balance the account. This is what Alegría has done with this poem. Her poem is an elegy that provides an accounting of her memories over a large span of years. The events and people mentioned in the poem are representative of several of the locations in which she has lived, and thus her memories become the source material for the poem. When Alegría wrote “Accounting,” she had been writing poetry for sixtytwo years. This poem appears in one of her latest collections of poetry, and so its publication also serves as a reflection of her creative life.
Alegría’s poem “Accounting” is an accounting of the important events of her life. The first few lines tell the reader that the poem’s author remembers certain events in her life that she defines as “electrical instants.” What follows are vignettes from the author’s memory, beginning with her childhood recollections. Alegría’s memories make the leap from skipping puddles to losing her virginity in only a few lines. She also recalls painful memories—the death of her mother, the assassination of Archbishop Romero, and the occupation of Nicaragua. Coupled with memories of loss are memories of love. Alegría compresses a lifetime of events into the few moments that a reader takes to study the poem. She dissolves the barrier of time and reduces her existence into twenty-six lines.
It is sometimes a mistake to assume the author and the poem’s narrator are one person, but in this case, there are several clues that indicate that Alegría is offering autobiographical details from her own life in this poem. The speaker of the poem tells the reader that she is sixty-eight years old, and Alegría would have been sixty-eight when the poem was written. Because Alegría relied upon her husband, Darwin Flakoll, to translate her books from Spanish into English, the publication date would be at least a year after the poem’s composition, and so the reader can assume that “Accounting” was written in 1992, although not published until 1993. There are other confirmed autobiographical details present in the poem, as well. Alegría had been prohibited from returning to El Salvador after she spoke out publicly and condemned the assassination of Archbishop Romero. She was not permitted to re-enter the country even to visit her dying mother, and thus, Alegría would have been forced to wait for news of her mother’s death by telephone. Alegría was also a vocal critic of the military occupation of Nicaragua. All of these details suggest that Alegría and the poet narrator are the same person. Knowing this information makes appreciating and understanding the poem as an autobiographical accounting easier for the reader.
The opening lines of “Accounting” offer the background information needed to understand the poem. These three lines also explain the narrative that follows. Alegría tells the reader that she is sixty-eight years old. As people age, they often reminisce about the life they have led. Alegría is engaging in this process of reflection. At the same time, the title makes clear that the poem is an accounting of her life. She will chronicle her life and list “a few electrical instants.” “Electrical” suggests these are moments of power, perhaps moments that shocked her. They are also moments that left a mark upon her psyche. The use of “instants” makes clear that the memories are just moments of time, vignettes of events that when recalled pass through her mind in an instant.
The first of Alegría’s memories is the happiness she felt skipping through puddles. Presumably, this first memory is of her childhood, when playing in puddles after a fresh rainfall brings the sort of carefree enjoyment that the poet describes as “happiness.” Alegría quickly jumps to another memory, this time a visit to the Inca ruins at Macchu Pichu in the mountains of Peru. It would be possible to consider that a childhood trip, perhaps a vacation taken with parents, created wonderful memories that are recalled many years later. However, there is no evidence that this poem’s accounting is chronological. Alegría’s husband was with the United States foreign service for many years and the family moved frequently, visiting many different countries. The family lived in Chile for a period of time. While there is no record that they lived in Peru, they did live in Central America, and so the visit that the author recalls might have occurred during her marriage, rather than during childhood. The ruins of Macchu Pichu are breathtaking, and regardless of whether Alegría visited as an adolescent or as an adult, the visit would have been unforgettable. Her six hours at the site indicates a day trip, though, and that she did not spend the night there. Whether taking the train and bus or walking the Inca Trail, the trip is a long one, and with transportation, a visitor has only five or six hours to actually spend at the ruins if trying to do the trip in one day. Visitors who spend the night near the site can enter at dawn and spend all day.
Lines 7 and 8 recall the memory of the author’s loss of virginity. No age is given, but the small amount of time, only ten minutes, suggests that perhaps she was young. The quick fumbling of youth might be brief, but Alegría counts it as one of the moments that left a mark upon her. It is the awakening of sexuality, and it marks the end of childhood and the transition to being an adult. Such an event is “electrical,” since sexuality also brings greater responsibilities and, eventually, children who will change her life forever.
In lines 9 and 10, Alegría jumps ahead to the death of her...
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