The Divine Dramady: Julia Alvarez’s "The Woman I Kept to Myself"

Julia Alvarez’s line “our art can right what happens in the world” can be felt throughout her poetry collection, The Woman I Kept to Myself, particularly as the structure and themes mirror Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy with her own personal twist. Julia and Dante both wrote their poetry collection “in the middle of the journey of our life” where they found themselves “in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.” The first line of Dante’s Divine Comedy is referenced in the first section of Julia’s collection, fittingly called “Seven Trees,” with “Dante’s dark wood closing in on all sides, my last moments filled with a fear that takes my breath away.” Our breath is also taken away with Julia’s collection as readers will laugh and ugly-snail-trail-cry with these themes on the human condition, language, and the need to tell our stories as a way to understand our lives that can be felt no matter if one is a Dominican-American woman in the 21st century or a 13th-century, exiled Florentine man. 

Similarities switch with structure. Both works are divided into three parts. The Divine Comedy has “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” and “Paradiso.” The Woman I Kept to Myself has “Seven Trees,” “The Woman I Kept to Myself,” and “Keeping Watch.” Dante has 33 cantos in each section (with the exception of the first with 34, but who’s counting?). Dante organizes his cantos with the poetic form he invented, terza rima. Julia also puts her own spin on her poetry’s structure. Each of Julia’s poems contains three sections with ten lines, but each poem reads like free verse.  

To honor Julia’s collection, here is a poem within poems, cause we are so meta like that at Lighthouse Writers.

“Seven Trees” 

 

The middle of life divides time into seven trees:

“the growing shadows: maple, willow, 

Oak, arborvitae, locust, elm, saman.”

Roots are honored through every chapter of being re-rooted 

“We have to live our natures out, the seed

we call our soul unfolds over the course 

of a lifetime and there’s no going back

on who we are - that much I’ve learned from trees.” 

To avoid being lost in forests 

We face our fears through life’s tests. 

 

Julia’s second section is the largest with the most reflections on her life. There were just too many quotable lines, so here’s a new poem made from different quotes in part dos. De nada, folks.

 

“The Woman I Kept to Myself,” 

 

“But now my people hang upon these walls

and history is pressing in on me,

as if to say, !Tu tiempo ya llegó¡

Become the one you have been waiting for.”

 

“Those everlasting separations from 

the people you love, the places you love,

to which you were intending to return.”

 

“Hold on tight! could be the first commandment 

for this life, and the second, Let it go!

Only the empty hand is free to hold.”

 

“Keeping Watch.”

 

The ways we choose to conclude- 

Alvarez with lessons & Alighieri with “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” 

Dante’s last 33rd canto starts by speaking to the “Virgin mother, daughter of your Son.”

Julia’s last poem begins with a question for her parents: 

“Did I redeem myself, Mami? Papi?

Was I the native child you dreamed up 

as you lay in the foreign bed you’d made

your first and failed exile in New York?”

They seek to be saved from human errors 

By honoring origins & saving their teachings, Hopes, & questions through poetry. 

 

Julia and Dante right the world’s wrongs by using their stories to heal human existence’s brokenness by showing the ways we are all interconnected.

 

“But what had I in common with fractions?

I wanted the bigger, undivided world!”

 

Her poem “You” is the best poem that unites socio-economic backgrounds through examining the semantics of how the word “you” is translated in English and Spanish. Both of these writers’ work will speak to all of our identities. Different roots still share the same Earth. Although Julia and Dante belong to different time periods and ethnicities, their art belongs to the immortal dramedy and comedy that is this Divine thing called living.

 

Theresa Rozul Knowles is an educator, creative/content writer, and event's typewriter poet. Her 12 years of teaching has included cognitive skills training, coordinating special education programs, and teaching creative writing. She graduated from the University of Memphis with honors in literature and a minor in both Italian and theater. She has one poetry chapbook, Samhain & Such Inspired Junts; her poetry has been featured on NPR's "All Things Considered" and has appeared in Sampaguita Press and Immortal Verses. Theresa's business Citrine Ink connects communities through creativity and culture.