The Habit of Movement

by Judith Ortiz Cofer

Start Free Trial

The Poem

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446

“The Habit of Movement” is a short poem of twenty lines divided into two stanzas. It is written in free verse, a style that does not adhere to any regular meter or rhyme scheme. The lines are irregular, some as long as thirteen syllables and others as short as six. The poem is categorized as a lyric because of its subjective, emotional, and personal qualities. Although the poet herself is the speaker of the poem, she uses the first-person plural pronoun “we” as she refers to herself as part of a family.

Judith Ortiz Cofer was born in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico, which served as the archetype for Salud, the imaginary town in her first novel, The Line of the Sun (1989), nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1990. The title of the poem “The Habit of Movement” refers to the family’s practice of moving back and forth between Puerto Rico and Paterson, New Jersey, because of her father’s Navy career. Jesús Ortiz Lugo was first stationed in Brooklyn Navy Yard and was then assigned to other places around the world. Because the family was forced to move so often, they never established roots in any one place. This poem reflects Ortiz Cofer’s struggle to make a place for herself out of a childhood spent traveling back and forth between cultures. However, the poet moves beyond her own experience as a Puerto Rican immigrant who grew up bilingual and bicultural to voice the collective experience of the Puerto Rican community.

In the first stanza, Ortiz Cofer shows the problems that frequent movement causes the family: loss of identity, a sense of rootlessness, and an inability to feel at home in either culture. Eventually, she and her family lose the will to become part of the new community and accept the transient state that keeps them no more grounded than the library books they borrow and return “hardly handled.”

In the second stanza, the meaning shifts and Ortiz Cofer uses the habit of movement as a symbol of safety. Moving from place to place keeps the poet and her family insulated and safe as they continue to relocate without becoming attached to or feeling a part of any particular place. Since they never stay in one place long enough to establish roots, they are also free of any responsibility to a community. The poem reflects Cofer’s ambiguous attitude toward a life spent traveling between the United States and Puerto Rico as the family struggles to make a home in the new environment. As a writer, she seeks to create a history for herself out of the cultural ambiguity of a childhood divided between two cultures.

Forms and Devices

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 362

By using the pronoun “we” throughout the poem, Ortiz Cofer is able to show her deeply personal attitude toward the nomadic life while, at the same time, giving voice to other immigrants with similar backgrounds. The first-person plural form allows her not only to refer to herself and her own family but also to move outward to include other immigrants struggling to find identity in a foreign setting. The metaphors reinforce the sense of restlessness, of not being grounded in one country or one culture. She compares her family to “balloons set adrift” who have lost their “will to connect.” When she says her family “carried the idea of home on [their] backs,” she calls up images of refugees fleeing with bundles of their belongings tied to their backs. To show the depth of her feelings of isolation and dispossession, she compares “the blank stare of undraped windows” to “the eyes of the unmourned dead.” As the family moves on, this habit of movement not only keeps them isolated but also keeps them safe like “a train in motion” that “nothing could touch.”

Instead of a rhyme scheme or regular metrical pattern, Cofer uses other poetic devices as a way of providing a sense of unity in the poem. Here, alliteration, rather than rhyme, is the chief means of repetition. When she suggests that her family’s lives are of no more importance than the books they borrow from the library, she uses alliteration to emphasize the comparison: “books borrowed” and “hardly handled.” Alliteration also serves as a unifying agent in the repetition of the c sound in the following lines: “we lost our will to connect,/ and stopped collecting anything heavier/ to carry than a wish.” Through her choice of words, Cofer shows the contrast between the tropics and the new world: The family was “nurtured” in the “lethargy” of the tropics. In the new world, with its “wide sky” and libraries as foreign as Greek temples, the family drifts until they lose the will to connect. She juxtaposes the idea of a rich, full life with her feeling of displacement in the seemingly contradictory phrase, “we grew rich in dispossession.”


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 113

Bruce-Novoa, Juan. “Judith Ortiz Cofer’s Rituals of Movement.” The Americas Review 19 (Winter, 1991): 88-99.

Davis, Rocio G. “Metanarrative in Ethnic Autobiography for Children: Laurence Yep’s The Garden and Judith Ortiz Cofer’s Silent Dancing.” MELUS 27 (Summer, 2002): 139-158.

Faymonville, Carmen. “New Transnational Identities in Judith Ortiz Cofer’s Autobiographical Fiction.” MELUS 26 (Summer, 2001): 129-160.

Kallet, Marilyn. “The Art of Not Forgetting: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer.” Prairie Schooner 68 (Winter, 1994): 68-76.

Ocasio, Rafael. “The Infinite Variety of Puerto Rican Reality: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer.” Callaloo 17 (Summer, 1994): 730-743.

Ocasio, Rafael. “Puerto Rican Literature in Georgia? An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer.” Kenyon Review 14 (Fall, 1992): 56-61.

Wilhelmus, Tom. “Various Pairs.” Hudson Review 43 (Spring, 1990): 151-152.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access