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 “Princess instead”). The narrator herself, she declares in the second stanza of this section, “could never decide” her own role and turned instead “to books, those staunch, upright men.” She also became a kind of man about the house, not only the “Scribe” reading the mail and paying bills but also the handyman taking care of small repairs.
Sections 3 and 4 tell readers more about the grandmother and her house; “She believes in myths and birds,” knows that seagulls predict rain, and that male mockingbirds sing “for their nesting wives” all night—in sharp contrast, apparently, to the generations of drunken husbands now missing from this home. The grandmother “trusts only what she builds/ with her own hands,” including this house, which she apparently constructed “after living twenty-five years/ with a man who tried to kill her.” The mother in the poem still berates the grandmother for her marriage, but the narrator speaks more gently of “Grandma,” and pictures her in the morning, “her hair loose in braids,” and as “soft she was soft.”
Section 5 breaks the structure and rhythm the poem has built so far by entering a more interior monologue: “in the night I would hear it/ glass bottles shattering the street,” possibly thrown from the freeway above, and the speaker would experience “the cold fear” that accompanies such violence in the night. There is an intruder—most likely the mother’s or the grandmother’s husband returning drunk—and the narrator promises to call the police if he comes again. Inside the house, however, the sounds of a purring gray kitten (“beneath the quilts” made from the intruder’s old suits) and the singing of mockingbirds indicate relative safety for the women inhabitants.
In the final section of the poem, the mother warns the narrator to be hard: “Baby, don’t count on nobody,” particularly men. The narrator disagrees, saying, “if you’re good to them/ they’ll be good to you back.” As if to prove her...
(This entire section contains 678 words.)
point, she declares, “Every night I sleep with a gentle man/ to the hymn of mockingbirds,” and, in the last stanza of this last section, “tie up my hair into loose braids”—as her grandmother used to do—“and trust only what I have built/ with my own hands.” The narrator, in short, celebrates the strength and wisdom of her grandmother and quietly ignores the advice of her own, more bitter mother.
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.