The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In spite of its title and all its natural imagery, “Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway” is really a celebration of the power of women and a guide to dealing with men. In language that lifts her thoughts to a mythic level, Lorna Dee Cervantes has created a powerful statement of Latina strength—and a reminder about those who so often take it away.

The poem is broken into six numbered parts; all except the first contain verse stanzas themselves. The whole poem is thus made up of six shorter poems. Section 1 is a kind of preface to the entire poem and introduces several of its characters and some of its natural imagery. The freeway across the street from her house, the narrator of the poem declares, is a “blind worm,” “unwinding” and “wrapping the valley up.” (According to the geography of the poem, the freeway is probably U.S. Route 280, running up the peninsula from San Jose to San Francisco. Cervantes wrote another, shorter poem in 1977 with a similar setting titled “Freeway 280.”) Every evening her grandmother waters geraniums as “the shadow of the freeway lengthened.” These concluding lines of this section not only pit a natural act (tending flowers) against a human-made structure (the freeway) but also present a premonition (in the freeway’s lengthening shadow) of some looming danger or disaster.

In the first line of section 2, the narrator declares one of her main themes—“We were a woman family”—and then describes the three generations of women who live in this house in a royal metaphor, of the grandmother as “Queen” and the mother as “Knight” or “Warrior” (who really wanted to be...

(The entire section is 678 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Perhaps the most obvious formal quality of the poem is its complex structure of six parts and seventeen separate verse stanzas. In addition, each of the six sections has a different form, a varying number of stanzas, and even a separate tone (especially section 5, with its almost stream-of-consciousness voice). The complexity of the structure is apparent, however, and works to provide pauses between sections. In the end, the ideas of the poem are unified organically by the poem’s language and imagery.

What is most effective in the poem is the way that Cervantes finds figurative equivalents for her thoughts and feelings, from the metaphor of the royal family in part 2 and the birds throughout the poem, to the opposition between the concrete freeway and the geraniums in the opening and closing stanzas of the poem. At a certain point, those metaphors become the symbols that carry the meaning of the poem, but they also help to ground Cervantes’ experience and ideas, to make her verse concrete, not only like the freeway overshadowing the house but also like the kitten and the faucet and the other actual objects of her world. Incidentally, the imagery does not reduce the ideas of the poem to any simplistic, black and white opposition: Men, for example, can be not only drunken intruders but also mockingbirds and “staunch, upright” books as well.

Cervantes uses a few Spanish words in the poem, such as “borrachando,” but probably fewer than she does in some of her other poetry. For a poet like Cervantes, living (like many Latino writers) between two linguistic communities, both English and Spanish are necessary for a full expression of her life in poetry.