The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 533

“Dear Aunt Chofi” is a long poem in free verse with thirteen stanzas containing more than ninety-five lines in the English version. The title clearly suggests a letter from a niece to her aunt and serves to underscore the monologic nature of the poem, which is a one-sided conversation between the niece and her deceased Aunt Sofía. The narrator, “I,” addresses herself to “you,” the aunt, thus making the reader an outside observer, an eavesdropper on a conversation in print. Chofi is a fond nickname for Sofía, which means “wisdom.” As she eulogizes her aunt, the narrator reviews the aunt’s life.

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The first stanza takes Aunt Chofi from birth to widowhood. She was “A rebel from birth” who insisted on marrying the man she loved despite her family’s disapproval. The family’s judgment was better than Sofía’s, but that “purgatory” chapter of her life ended when her husband broke his neck in a drunken fall. “And I listened to you tell it,” says the narrator, who heard Aunt Chofi’s stories while witnessing her activities, described in the second stanza, as a baker, a creator of popular and religious images for ritualistic consumption at weddings and baptisms.

The third and fourth stanzas reveal that Chofi was an artist who smoked incessantly and painted vigorously, ignoring, or perhaps requiring, the chaos around her. As she painted, she was “Always talking, conversing” while her room became an ashtray for innumerable cigarette butts.

In the fifth, sixth, and seventh stanzas, the reader learns that Chofi was a sort of curandera, or folk healer, who served as “midwife, nurse” and who “laid out corpses, attended drunks,/ defended all lost causes//even fought with the Guard/ and ended up exiled in Mexico.” “The Guard” refers to the National Guard of Nicaragua, an American-trained army that supported the Somoza family dictatorship of thirty years that led to the Sandinista revolution in the late 1970’s.

The eighth and ninth stanzas portray an older Aunt Chofi with “graying hair.” A mother herself, Aunt Chofi “slaved” so her daughter could study in Mexico and the United States, but the daughter distanced herself ever further from her mother. Indeed, Aunt Chofi dies without her only daughter present. Though the daughter received the news of her mother’s death in distant Buenos Aires, Argentina, the niece was with her aunt, as the tenth stanza indicates: “The morning before your death/ you were the same as ever,/ vociferous and loud-mouthed/ only complaining of great pain.”

The last three stanzas bring Aunt Chofi full circle, from her birth as a rebel to her posthumous condition, where she will “answer only to bones,” not to parents, husbands, daughters, or societal expectations. Aunt Chofi believed she had had many lives, many incarnations: in one “a little girl who died/ at birth, in another an adventurous male.” The poet implies that “Dear Aunt Chofi” is another reincarnation of her beloved Sofía: “Now that you no longer exist, exist no longer/ perhaps you recognize yourself/ in this mirror.” If the eyes are the mirror of the soul, this poem is surely the mirror of a life as well as a celebration of it.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339

The most obvious and most important device in this poem is the form itself. As the title indicates, the poem is a letter to Aunt Chofi. Unlike most letters, however, this one anticipates no reply, for it asks no questions, and it engages in no dialogue. The poet mentions herself only twice, and then only as Chofi’s audience, demonstrating the importance of storytelling and the oral tradition: “I listened to you tell it” and “You, who told me about your perils.” The remainder of the poem is addressed directly to Aunt Chofi, using the familiar form in the Spanish to indicate the intimacy of the relationship between the niece and her aunt. The poem recounts the aunt’s life in a past tense that suggests repeated or ongoing activity rather than completed, finalized activity. Unfortunately, the use of the imperfect in Spanish, like the use of the form, is difficult to capture in translation to English.

The poem depends primarily on the list technique to build an image of Aunt Chofi by accretion of detail and to suggest the rich chaos that was her life: “Your habitat filled with brushes,/ oil paints, plaster molds, easels,/ canvases, canvas stretchers, statues of saints.” The poet uses several metaphors as well. Aunt Chofi was an “Admirable Amazon in [her] fantastic feats.” She was a “Witch doctor” who mixed medicines and potions to cure and prevent disease. Her life with her drunken husband was “a purgatory, a living hell.”

Such metaphors create a vivid image of Chofi’s personality, but perhaps the most important symbol in the poem is the mirror. Aunt Chofi has told her niece about her “perils in the mirror”—perhaps a reference to aging—and the niece has responded with “this mirror,” the poem itself, which is meant to mirror the sheer energy and vivacity of Aunt Chofi’s life. As Chofi, the “artisan” of paint brush and cake decorating, rendered her saints and Cinderellas, so too has the poet rendered a likeness of her aunt.

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Themes