Julia Alvarez Poetry: American Poets Analysis
In her writing, Julia Alvarez has said that she attemptsto move out into those other selves, other worlds. . . . By allowing myself to be those mixtures and not having to choose or repress myself or cut myself off from the other, I have become a citizen of the world.
She has stated that she disliked books as a child, except the tales of the Arabian nights, or “one thousand one nights,” which she found to be full of both stories and power. She has reflected that shejust knew words, stories, poems could keep me alive, as they had my first teacher, Scheherazade. . . . And the best part of the story is that we all have access to that power in the meaning-making, story-telling Scheherazades of the books we read and the books we write.
The power of Alvarez’s poetry is in the stories that it tells, stories that transcend one place, one time, and one person’s experience.
Alvarez started her career as a poet and still thinks of poetry as her first love. She also believes that being a poet first has had an impact on her fiction, because “writing poetry gives me a kind of intense particularity about words. . . . [Writing is] a way of being in the world, and the essence of it is paying attention.” Attention to the minutiae of everyday life is one identifying characteristic of Alvarez’s poetic technique and a vehicle for bringing life and power to the everyday stories she tells in her poems.
Homecoming: New and Collected Poems
Referring to her career as a writer, Alvarez observes that she found herself “turning more and more to writing as the one place where I felt I belonged and could make sense of myself, my life, all that was happening to me.” This is certainly true of the poems in Homecoming: New and Collected Poems, which capture the ordinary aspects of Alvarez’s childhood and her identities as a young girl-woman, daughter, immigrant, and grown woman finding her artistic voice.
The book is organized into six sections: “Homecoming,” “Housekeeping,” “Heroines,” “33,” “Redwing Sonnets,” and “Last Night at Tía’s,” followed by an afterword in which Alvarez comments on the changes she made for the revised edition. The 1996 work includes the poems from the 1984 edition of Homecoming, some of which were revised to reflect changes the passing years had made in her perspectives. Alvarez also added five sections that explore issues that had become important to her since the book’s first publication.
Although Homecoming’s central images—the events of a “typical” household day such as cleaning, doing the laundry, cooking, dusting, bed making, and ironing—might be called commonplace or mundane, they are ideal vehicles for exploring powerful, thought-provoking issues. Alvarez accomplishes much more with such simple scenes than merely chronicling the daily chores of a mother and daughter. These small household events allow Alvarez to explore the tensions of family dynamics, the mother-daughter relationship, and the emotional and physical awakening of a young girl to womanhood.
For example, “Storm Windows” not only shows a mother hard at work securing their home but also demonstrates a young girl’s need to separate from her mother’s protective and domineering grasp:
I wanted to mount that ladder, . . . Then give a kick, unbuckling her hands clasped about my ankles, and sail up, beyond her reach, her house, her yard, her mothering.
The mother-daughter relationship is complex, yet by setting it among the commonplace events of women’s daily tasks, Alvarez creates an especially female canvas on which to paint this dynamic and the roles filled by the women in Alvarez’s Dominican family. Despite the everyday nature of their “chores,” Alvarez reveals that these women are the artists of the everyday: They bake, select fabric, sew clothing. By definition, such women create things that are designed for use—that will be used up, works of art that will not last: pies, soups, dresses, clean clothes, and sparkling windows.
In “Woman’s Work,” Alvarez’s mother challenges her: “Who says woman’s work isn’t high art?/ She challenged as she scrubbed the bathroom tiles./ Keep house as if the address were your heart.” Ironically, although Alvarez wanted to be different from her mother and wanted to work outside her home, she observes that, as a writer, her work anchors her to her home, the very spot she struggled to escape. She “did not want to be her counterpart!/ I struck out . . . but became my mother’s child:/ a woman working at home on her art,/ housekeeping paper as if it were her heart.”
The book’s remaining sections move away from the family home and sphere of influence. “Heroines” examines the importance of women’s friendships (“Woman Friend”), the need for a woman to save herself rather than waiting for Prince Charming (“Against Cinderella”), and the value of the ordinary life (“Old Heroines”).
When asked, “What kind of a woman/ are you?” the poet replies, “I wish I knew, I say, I wish/ I knew and could just put it into words.” The sonnets of “33” chart her transition from youth to adult woman, introducing lovers and former lovers, identity crises, successes and failures, political concerns, suicidal times, fears of failure, writer’s block, the conflicts associated with being an adult daughter, and the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of an adult woman. Although they are not always happy or pleasant, these poems make it clear that life’s important realities require deep feeling, deep commitment, and a fair amount of pain. ”Tell me what is it women want the most?” a man asks her, and this section concludes by powerfully articulating Alvarez’s values:
Sometimes the words are so close I...
(The entire section is 2506 words.)