What is the meaning behind Carlos Bulosan's poem "Portraits with Cities Falling"?

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Bulosan’s poem uses the metaphor of a shadow, presumably that of an intruder, coming into the narrator’s bedroom at night. However, this intruder is not characterized by a singular face or voice but rather by a multitude of hands, referred to as “ghostly hands” (ln 11) and “creeping hands” (ln 12). Bulosan even uses a simile to compare these hands to “curling tentacles” (ln 8), signaling the presence of something truly malicious. He ends the first stanza with the narrator describing himself in a state of uncomfortable wakefulness as a result of this looming intruder.

In the second stanza, the narrator tries to confront the shadow/intruder. He realizes that the being has no eyes but has hands and feet that are nearly omnipresent, whether in size or number. Furthermore, he cannot label the thing as male or female because it can appear to be both depending on how he looks at it. Bulosan uses the metaphor “her bigness is humanity” (ln 23) to compare this being to humanity itself. Thus, the shadow is all men and all women. When he states that “the poor hug their hunger” (ln 26), the first image that comes to mind is that of a big city, in which wealth differentials are often very evident. The narrator is clearly disturbed by what this being, this portrait, represents; it seems that he himself lives in a room in a large modern city, feeling suffocated by the simultaneous close quarters and social isolation he finds himself in.

The poem’s title, “Portrait with Cities Falling,” suggests that these hands, which all belong to a disconcerting shadow, symbolize all of the people living in large cities. Bulosan grew up during a time when the modern city was just becoming a concept; he and many others likely found the city lifestyle overwhelming. The narrator calls himself “nameless in history” in conjunction with this idea of the modern city dweller’s isolation. The ending of the poem signals some fear of the future or the possibility of an uprising. The narrator questions if all of these people will “bear arms...come killing” (ln 28). However, it ends on a hopeful note when he hints that the huge masses of people have the power “to remake the world” (ln 35). Perhaps Bulosan intended to suggest that although the modern city dweller can feel that they live in an isolated, uncaring world, he/she in fact has the power to join forces with the many other people around them in order to make an impact.

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