The Woman I Kept to Myself - Julia Alvarez

The works of this award-winning poet and novelist are rich with the language and influences of two cultures: those of the Dominican Republic of her childhood and the America of her youth and adulthood. They have shaped her writing just as they have shaped her life. In these seventy-five autobiographical poems, Alvarez’s clear voice sings out in every line. Here, in the middle of her life, she looks back as a way of understanding and celebrating the woman she has become.





It's hard for me to know where to start when reviewing a collection of poetry, but I guess I start with saying that I found these poems to be absolutely gorgeous, even when talking about not-so-pretty topics! As one might guess from the title, these poems cover the span of Alvarez's life up to the time of this collection being written. She speaks of the struggles of trying to find her space in the world as a Dominican child being transplanted to New York City. The poems speaking on this also give a nod of pride and respect to her parents who seemed to remain solid and vigilant, their everyday actions promoting perseverance through adversity, even as young Julia would watch them falter and rebuild time and time again. 


"Long after I'd lost my heavy accent, my face showed I had come from somewhere else. I couldn't keep the southern continent out of the northern vista of my eyes."


from "All-American Girl"


She also gets real about her adult years, with poems that only give a whispering reference to a failed marriage and what that taught her. Briefly she writes of the doubts she had about herself during that time, questioning whether or not she understood love. Choosing not to linger with the negative moments, she instead focuses on finding love again later in life, writing poems of gratitude for all that life has taught her -- about herself, her family, her roots, even her connections with the natural world. 


from Alvarez's "Locust"


Not every poem was an absolute hit for me -- I didn't entirely connect with "Anger & Art", for instance -- but that didn't diminish my enjoyment of the collection one bit. This is one I will definitely be referring back to in years to come, and I am curious to see, as I read some of Alvarez's novels,  where connections can be made between her writings within the two genres.


from Alvarez's "El Sereno"



I've included some samples -- not the poems in their entirety -- from some of my favorites from this collection below.



"Museo del Hombre": the closing line -- Become the one you have been waiting for. 


"ARS Politica" : I yearned to write the story of my life into a book a girl might want to read, a girl like me, no longer frightened by the whisperings of terrified adults, the cries of uncles being rounded up, the sirens of the death squads racing by, toward a destination I could change with an eraser or a trick ending. There had to be a way to make the world safer, so I could bear to live in it!


"Tom": We make art out of ourselves and what we make makes us. 


"My Bottom Line": You are the bottom line, my love, the net that catches me each time I take a leap toward an absolute that isn't there but appears dispersed in the relative: warm supper waiting when I get in late, my folded long johns on the laundry stack, the covers on my side turned sweetly down when finally I head upstairs from work that couldn't wait til morning, the love note tucked in my suitcase for my night away...I'm so relieved I'm not an ingenue searching for you at parties, singles bars. I have you, waiting when my plane gets in, curling your body in the shape of mine, my love, my number one, my bottom line. 


Other favorites of mine included "Gaining Myself Back", "Touching Bottom", "That Moment", and "Canons".