The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.”


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.