The Poem

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

Claribel Alegría’s “The American Way of Life” is a nonstanzaic, 206-line poem about the poet-speaker’s visit to three American states: California, Pennsylvania, and New York. The speaker, who does not live in the United States, had visited America once before, but so long ago that she “nearly forgot” what the country and its people were like. The poem offers commentary on several aspects of American life and ends with the speaker’s personification of America as a “bitch” who “chews up” minorities as if they were “Chiclets.” The American way of life, the poet predicts, will be destroyed.

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The poem opens as the speaker is “swallowed” by the state of California’s “hypnotic tangle/ of freeways” viewed from an airplane. An escort who drives the speaker from the airport asks if the speaker has forgotten “the American way of life?” The speaker visits “the Sanctuary,” where she is “presented” to her “‘compatriots’” who come to America without papers (“the ‘eternally undocumented’”). These “undocumented” people are “transparent” as “they slide through Mission Heights” or work as servants in a wealthy San Francisco Bay area neighborhood. After work, the immigrants gather together in “unsafe” houses, or houses where they can be found, to watch Americans riding in pleasure boats around the island of Alcatraz. The speaker’s escort explains that “three hundred undocumented” are found each week by the “Migra,” or border patrol agents.

The speaker visits the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, where, in the square near the “Campanile” she notes “a festive touch of anarchy.” Students are protesting “the dinosaurs/ of the Establishment.” The students are “Joshuas dressed in blue jeans” sounding their trumpets “amid the sacred walls/ of Jericho” or the university, so that “the walls shuddered/ and the deans trembled.” From Berkeley, the speaker travels along the Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles. Along the way, she is warned that the “Edenic beaches” are “full of tar” from offshore drilling rigs. In East Los Angeles the speaker watches “jobless steelworkers/ walk back and forth,” protesting in front of a Bethlehem Steel plant.

A quick flight to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the “neon signs” that “mark the way/ to General Eisenhower’s farm” remind the speaker of American military intervention in Guatemala and the attempt at intervention in Cuba (“the Bay of Pigs”). “Finally” in “New York,” amid the old and new skyscrapers, the speaker observes young men on skateboards who remind her of the 1930’s Olympic ice skating star Sonja Henie. On the sidewalks of New York, the speaker sees a homeless woman and a young ballerina crying. The speaker finds that she responds like native New Yorkers, who “pass by” these representations of poverty and despair “with scarcely a glance.” The poem closes with the speaker prophesying that the American way of life will be destroyed by “a rain of fire/ and ashes” as Saint John the Divine prophesies in the New Testament Book of Revelation that Babylon will be destroyed.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485

“The American Way of Life” is a didactic narrative poem. The poet describes particular personal experiences that lead her to her revelation that the American way of living is doomed. Alegría persistently alludes to the Bible, beginning with a reference to the battle of Jericho, from the Book of Joshua. Santa Barbara, California, beaches are referred to as “Edenic,” and the word “Bethlehem” is punned in line 103. Finally, the poet’s vision of the destruction of the American way of life draws heavily on the Book of Revelation (17:6 and 6:13), because New York City reminds the speaker of the whore of Babylon as well as Babylon itself.

As with most of the poems in the collection Woman of the River, the poet uses short lines and iambic meter. The varying line lengths (usually one to three feet, but occasionally even a five-foot line) contribute to the drama of the poem. The lines of the poem are sparsely punctuated, and most of them are end-stopped—the sense of the words is found in the line.

Alegría is expert at presenting brief, strong images, and images in “The American Way of Life” are no exception. The reader moves quickly from an aerial view of San Francisco Bay to the bell tower on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, to “the chained gates of Bethlehem Steel” in East Los Angeles to young skateboarders the speaker watches from the sidewalks of New York. In this poem, Alegría presents her images with little explanation or comment, although a second voice in the poem, that of the speaker’s escort or tour guide, provides social and political commentary. However, when readers come to the poet’s final image, her presentation of America as “drunk with blood/ with her diadem of rubies/ and her drugstore stink” chewing up Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Lebanese, and Chicanos as if they were chewing gum, the speaker’s political perspective is quite unmistakable.

The juxtaposition of the speaker’s voice with that of her tour guide, whose words are written in italics, allows the reader to dismiss the guide’s bitter and angry commentary. However, because the speaker records only what she sees—and so becomes a kind of seer and thus a prophet—the reader can trust the vision at the close of the poem. The reader’s trust is further deepened because the speaker mentions precise landmarks and place names (Mission Heights, Alcatraz, Berkeley’s Campanile, Rockerfeller Center), some famous, others known only locally.

Alegría’s preciseness extends to her use of concrete language and her implied metaphors. For example, the bridges across San Francisco Bay are “floating spiderwebs” that “arch between Berkeley/ and San Francisco,” and “two boys” in New York skate in between automobiles described as “sharks/ with chrome teeth.” Alegría’s metaphors offer the imaginative jump necessary for understanding her vision of the American way of life.

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Themes