The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 602 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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,...

(The entire section is 443 words.)