Present In Reflection And Memory

Present In Reflection And Memory

By Xelena González

Julia Alvarez shares five decades of intimate struggle in 'The Woman I Kept to Myself'

You who are reading these words, come closer.

That's what author Julia Alvarez asks of her readers: to share her life lessons that she has laid bare in poems of promise and sorrow. On her 40th birthday, Alvarez began writing her personal reflections on a life often filled with struggle. She didn't stop for 14 years. Now, at 54, this celebrated author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is ready to reveal her secrets in an autobiographical collection of poetry, The Woman I Kept to Myself.

The Woman I Kept
To Myself: Poems

By Julia Alvarez
Algonquin Books
$18.95, 176 pages
ISBN 1565124065

Reading: Julia Alvarez
April 15 Free
Central Library
600 Soledad

The book borrows its title from the poem "By Accident," which describes a young Julia so in love with the words of Whitman and Chaucer that she recited them to her sisters in their darkened room at bedtime. Annoyed, the siblings complained to their mother: "She's doing it again!" Slap of slippers / in the hall, door clicks, and lights snapped on. / "Why can't you be considerate for once?" / "I am," I pleaded, "these are sounds, sweet airs / that give delight and - "Keep it to yourself!" / my mother said, which more than anything / anyone in my childhood advised / turned me to this paper solitude / where I both keep things secret and broadcast / my heart for all the world to read ... "

This collection is so intimate it leaves the author naked, bearing the scars and regrets most would fight to conceal. Alvarez plunges deep into her own youth to relive the painful parts of the immigrant experience - the hurt of being called a spic, yet also feeling shamed by Spanish-speaking parents. In "Disappearing," she delineates the mentality of an anorexic ("If I make myself small perhaps I'll fit / in the stingiest fist, the heart that never has / enough to give, the bully who wants it all ... "). In "Gaining Myself Back" she explores her recovery.

Readers are carried through a chronology of triumphs and tragedies, birthdays and deathdays, falling in love, and struggling through divorce. The poet regrets never having children but later realizes she's nurtured thousands of students. With the turn of each page comes new revelation, new insight, and understanding that eventually bring a remarkable equanimity to the writer's voice. The quality of the poems becomes refined and focused as the author ages through the collection.

The book, comprised of 75 free verse poems of 30 lines each, is divided into three parts, the third being only a brief despedida. By that point, Alvarez has completed her history and introduction and turned to the subject of her craft. She explains her passion for words, makes a strong defense of poetry, and even confronts her readers, finally inviting them into her conversation. In "Reading For Pleasure," a piece appropriate for National Poetry Month, Alvarez writes, "Perhaps I picked up this desire from them / of wanting my readers to fall in love / with hairbands, willow trees, lawn ornaments: / this odd and wondrous world which would be lost / without our recreations - those who write, / but principally those who read for pleasure, / breathing life into dead characters. / And now, like them, I lie on these cold sheets, / waiting to be a woman once again. / You who are reading these words come closer." •

By Xelena González

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