The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 491

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“The Purpose of Altar Boys” is composed in free verse. Its forty-five lines are held together in a single stanza. The title appears to be straightforward and serious, preparing the reader for an account of the function of altar boys in the Catholic church. Alberto Ríos, however, looking back from the point of view of adulthood, assumes the voice of a mischievous altar boy who has created innovations in the performance of his duties when he assists the priest during the sacrament of Communion. As the poem progresses, the word “purpose” of the title takes on the meaning of intention.

The altar boy begins by explaining the way in which the human eye is constructed for perceiving good and evil. He says he learned this from his friend Tonio at catechism, where the boys were being taught the principles of their religion. Tonio learned about the eye from his mother. The altar boy explains that “the big part” of the eye “admits good” and the “little/ black part” is for “seeing evil.” He believed this because Tonio’s mother was a widow and, consequently, an “authority” on such things. Because the dark part of the eye sees evil, the altar boy associates evil with darkness. He explains that this is why children cannot go out at night and why girls sometimes undress at night and walk around their rooms or stand in their windows with nothing on but their sandals.

The narrator claims that he was the altar boy who “knew about these things.” Therefore, when he assisted the priest at Communion on Sundays, he believed he had his own mission. One of an altar boy’s responsibilities during Communion is to hold the communion plate under the chin of each person receiving the consecrated bread of the Eucharist, called the Host, so that it cannot accidentally fall to the floor and be defiled. As the narrator expresses it in the poem, his job as altar boy was to “keep Christ from falling.” While performing this duty, however, he had opportunities to accomplish his own purposes.

On some Sundays, he says, his mission was to remind people of the night before. Holding the metal plate beneath a communicant’s chin, he would drag his feet on the carpet, stirring up static electricity. He would wait for the right moment, then touch the plate to the person’s chin, delivering his “Holy Electric Shock” of retribution. The right moment would be when “Christ” had been taken safely into the communicant’s mouth. The narrator says that the shock caused a “really large swallowing and made people think.” He adds that he “thought of it as justice.” On other Sundays, however, the “fire” in his eyes was different, and his mission was changed. On these days, he would hold the plate too hard against the same nervous chins, pressing upward, so he could look with “authority” down “the tops of white dresses.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525

In “The Purpose of Altar Boys,” Ríos adopts the persona of a young boy, whose essential innocence attracts the reader and contributes to the humor of the poem. This persona affects the poem’s language and structure. The diction is simple and colloquial, as exemplified in “kids can’t go out” and in the boy’s references to the iris as the “big” part and to the pupil as the “little” part of the eye. This voice also accounts for the absence of such literary devices as simile, metaphor, and rhyme. These would give the poem a self-consciousness that the altar boy does not have. He narrates his story in a linear structure and without the interruptions of stanza breaks, as his mind moves quickly from thought to thought, image to image.

The sense of ease and speed in the narration is also facilitated by the poet’s use of a relatively short poetic line, usually containing six or seven syllables. Although the lines are short, the sentences are long. Five of them take up six or more lines, and one of these extends through twelve lines. The other three sentences in the poem take up one, two, and three lines, respectively. The combination of short lines and long sentences creates a sense not only of speed but also of breathlessness—these features express the altar boy’s excitement as he tells his story of good and evil, judgment and temptation.

His excitement is also conveyed by repetition. Fascinated by darkness, he repeats “at night” three times in four lines. Speaking about things that happen at night, he begins two of three consecutive lines with “That’s why.” The most significant occurrence of repetition, however, is the boy’s use of the pronoun “I.” It increasingly dominates the poem. The pronoun does not occur until line 17 and does not appear again until line 24. In the remaining twenty-one lines, however, it occurs six times. Toward the end of the poem, the word “I” ends one line and begins the next. The increasing appearance of the word reflects the altar boy’s self-assertion and reveals the pride he takes in fulfilling his missions.

The poet achieves special effects with punctuation and line breaks. He uses one dash in the poem, following the word “evil,” overemphasizing the word, as a boy would do. He uses a colon in “the precise moment: plate to chin” to indicate the gap across which the static electricity will jump. Line breaks also mirror the action: “To keep Christ from falling/ I held the metal plate/ under chins.” The poet places “under chins” beneath “I held the metal plate,” as the plate would be held under a chin. On the other hand, he places “from falling” on the same line as “To keep Christ,” indicating that the boy does not allow such a fall. Another significant line break occurs in “and I/ I would look,” where the first “I” represents the altar boy in his official role, and the second reflects his personal impulse. The boy’s eyes move down, just as the “I” does. This is where he lets “Christ” fall.