The Poem

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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.”

(This entire section contains 602 words.)

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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 important information sets the stage for the exile experience in terms of time and place. It becomes apparent, then, that the poem will consist of adult recollections of childhood memories, and the use of direct address to the persona’s father, who never speaks, reveals the close relationship that the two share. His name, Papi, is repeated six times in the poem, reinforcing his importance in the persona’s life as well as his preeminence in the family, thus evoking a great sense of loss as the poem develops to reveal his metamorphosis into an uncertain outsider in his chosen land of exile.

Dramatic contrasts such as the images of the family’s homeland compared with New York City, the father’s fall from knowledge to uncertainty, and the expectation of the vacation at the beach that is promised compared with the false beach scene that awaits the persona and her father in the reality of New York all demonstrate the conflicting nature of culture shock and its unnerving effects on newly arrived immigrants. The inner conflicts faced by those in exile from their homelands are further developed by the repeated use of water imagery to reinforce the struggle of the immigrants to resist submersion in their new culture. They must adapt and learn to navigate the deep, unknown, treacherous waters like the persona’s imagined vision of the struggling swimmer whom Papi “frantically” tries to wave back to safety. The act of exile, by its very nature, is a risky plunge into an uncharted pool, leaving behind the safe harbor of that which is known for the unfamiliar surroundings that frequently reject those who are somehow different.

This sense of being the outsider, full of wonder and fear, is heightened by the language Alvarez employs. Her simple, everyday vocabulary convincingly conveys a tone of childish recollection filtered through adult experience and draws the reader into a sympathetic identification with the persona. Her misty memories of the family’s journey, arrival, and reaction to New York depict a scene universal and familiar; the reader, too, experiences the rushed departure from a curfew-bound place, the disappointing artificiality of the new culture, and the loss of personal dignity inherent in the exile experience. The use of direct address, the constant use of “you” in reference to Papi, also has the effect of pulling readers into the story, making them participants who are also reflected in the glass of Macy’s store window.