Julia Alvarez’s “Exile” consists of seventeen four-line stanzas that convey a sense of shared recollection between the poem’s persona and her father. As she reflects upon the family’s abrupt departure from their Dominican homeland and their subsequent cultural adjustment to New York City, she reveals that, as the poem’s title suggests, this uprooting creates a sense of exile: a lamentation for those places and things left behind and a confused uncertainty about the new. The chronological sequencing of events gives the poem an autobiographical tone, but, placed as it is in a chapter in The Other Side = El Otro Lado entitled “Making up the Past,” one must acknowledge that this exile narrative encompasses the universal experiences of many immigrants, powerfully demonstrated via the memories of the poem’s persona.
Because the poem relies on an innocent, almost childlike, voice, memories of the family’s departure and arrival are shrouded in a child’s observations and interpretation of the adult intrigue necessary for a clandestine flight from their homeland. Alvarez alludes to Papi’s “worried whispers,” uncle’s “phony chuckles,” and Mami’s consoling promise that “there was a better surprise” in store for the children at the end of their journey. The persona reveals that she was “young” at the time of the family’s flight and thus “didn’t think adult things could go wrong”; this sense of expectation versus reality haunts the entire poem.
The first glimpse of the disappointment that awaits the family occurs in the pivotal middle stanza, which opens with a quick reversal of Mami’s promise through the persona’s revelation that she (the persona) has “already swum ahead.” Her childish instincts have seen through the parental subterfuge surrounding their exodus to the inevitable loss and danger inherent in their situation. These elements of complication and conflict are more fully developed in the stanzas that follow: the persona’s “fitful sleep” at the “dark, deserted airport” and her intuitive knowledge that Papi’s final glance at the horizon signals a severing of the familiar moorings that have held the family fast. This notion of being “set adrift” permeates the remainder of the poem as the persona continues to recall, in this one-sided conversation with Papi, her initial experiences in the family’s “new city.”
Alvarez provides a catalog of big-city images and the persona’s father’s explanations of these strange, new phenomena: “escalators/ as moving belts; elevators: pulleys and ropes;/ blond hair and blue eyes: a genetic code.” It is not, however, the technological wonders that dominate the poem’s final stanzas but rather the image of a “summery display” in Macy’s store window. Here, the American ideal, the handsome mannequin father, “slim and sure of himself,” is dramatically contrasted to the persona’s father, with his “thick mustache,” too-formal three-piece suit, fedora hat, and telling accent. The persona recalls how she and her father stood in front of the window marveling at the implements of ease and leisure displayed there: “beach pails, the shovels, the sandcastles/ no wave would ever topple, the red and blue boats” or the storybook girl who “waded in colored plastic.”
As the persona and her father back away, almost recoiling from the unreal specter of the store display, their own reflections, superimposed upon the glass, reveal a stark contrast. They stand apart as “visitors to this country,” exiles whose uncertain future in a land of plastic and ease haunts their “big-eyed” faces, like those of the island swimmers in the home they have left behind, whose faces, “right before plunging in,” are “eager, afraid.”
Forms and Devices
The poem’s italicized epigram consists of two place names, Ciudad Trujillo (now known as Santo Domingo, a port city in the Dominican Republic) and New York City, along with the date 1960. This...
(The entire section is 1,045 words.)