Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 695
Lines 1–2 These first lines of “We Live by What We See at Night” introduce the tropical island of Puerto Rico, though readers are not sure who the poet is speaking too; who the “you” is yet (later in the poem readers learn he is referring to his father). The...
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These first lines of “We Live by What We See at Night” introduce the tropical island of Puerto Rico, though readers are not sure who the poet is speaking too; who the “you” is yet (later in the poem readers learn he is referring to his father). The mountains “flicker in your sleep,” suggesting this person isn’t in Puerto Rico anymore, but rather, dreaming about it.
Still referring to the mountains in the first lines, here the poet describes the lush Puerto Rican landscape. Note the combination of sensory details used here: not only does the poet describe the color of the mountains, but he also uses the word “moist,” allowing readers to imagine the scene using touch as well, like the feeling of a moss-covered rock under their hand. By repeating the same color twice in two lines, the poet is perhaps trying to express the overwhelming sight of green covering the entire countryside.
The poet, having described the lush green mountains of Puerto Rico in his father’s dream, contrasts this with what his father saw when he woke up in New York or Texas, having been “evicted” from his homeland. Whereas the visions he saw while sleeping were natural and “green,” when he wakes he sees more man-made structures like “rooftops” and “barracks,” perhaps contrasting a more ideal garden-like island to cities where people have to crowd together in small apartment buildings or even bunks.
It’s difficult to tell if this is a real bridge that the grandfather built, or just a figurative one. Often, the image of “crossing a bridge” is used as a metaphor to express a passage from one world to another, to express a personal growth and progression. In this case, since in the ninth and tenth lines readers learn the bridge is built over a river seen only in a dream, they might guess this is not a real bridge. Through figurative language, this image helps extend the scene into the past four generations: the poet, his father and his father’s grandfather. Perhaps the poet is emphasizing the deep sense of tradition, son following father in a continuing line from the past, crossing the same bridges. Note, too, this is the second time the poet mentions dreaming, though this time it is “interrupted,” suggesting his father’s difficulty sleeping.
Here the poet moves from more descriptive and figurative language to a voice that tells readers explicitly how much his father must have “craved” to go back home after “thirty years exile.” Again, the sense of deep tradition is emphasized through the word “burrowed,” and in the simile “constant as your pulse.” By using this image, perhaps the poet is reminding readers of the “bloodline,” which is often used as a synonym for lineage or family record, again emphasizing the link of culture and ethnicity.
Here the poem shifts from past remembrance to the present. These lines help express how even though the poet, the son, was born in New York, he “inherited” his father’s dreams of the island.
These are the first lines that introduce the speaker of the poem, the son, who insists he sees the same visions as his father. The poet transposes the mountains of Puerto Rico over the run-down city, perhaps helping create a sense of blending landscapes and cultures. Notice the verbs “looming” and “overwhelming,” which seem to make the son’s imagined visions predominant over the real projects in Brooklyn. It’s the stories his father told of the garden-like island, perhaps, which are more important than the real city the exiled families now inhabit.
In these last lines, readers find the source of the poem’s title, as well as a return to the world of dream. When the poet says he lives by what he sees at night with his eyes closed, perhaps he’s suggesting that the dreams of Puerto Rico help sustain him through the harsh realities of the New York projects. Having come from a long line of exiled people, the poet learns from his father how to live on dream, hope and myth.