Analysis of Poem "A Voice" by Pat Mora
Pat Mora and A Voice
A Voice is one of Pat Mora's best known poems and focuses on the issues of identity and language, within a Mexican American family living close to the border between Texas and Mexico.
The poem explores the tensions and experiences of a mother brought up in a household that geographically is in America but culturally and spiritually is still in Mexico. The looming figure of a strict father is pivotal to the narrative which is 'spoken' through the voice of the mother's daughter.
'I am a child of the border, that land corridor bordered by the two countries that have most influenced my perception of reality,' says Pat Mora. Most of her poetry reflects this fact and contains both English and Spanish language; such examples include Legal Alien (Estranjero) and Elena.
A Voice was published in 1994 in the book Communion. The themes include personal struggle, race, cultural differences, the generation gap, bravery, and self-belief.
Pat Mora is herself a voice for those who seek more diversity within American institutions. In addition to her poetry and children's books, she is involved in promoting Hispanic culture and champions the cause for a more literate society.
"I write because I believe that Mexican Americans need to take their rightful place in U.S. literature. We need to be published and to be studied in schools and colleges so that the stories and ideas of our people won't quietly disappear."
A Voice is packed with vivid imagery and keen observation. It takes the reader into the household of a family of immigrants struggling to cope with a new way of life.
Specifically, it concentrates on the mother (madre) and her efforts to overcome fear and inhibition. What makes it stand out is the narrative, which comes from the daughter, so there is a distance, an objectivity, that helps give the reader an overview, but which in no way undermines the struggle of the main protagonist, the mother.
Even the lights on the stage unrelenting
as the desert sun couldn’t hide the other
students, their eyes also unrelenting,
students who spoke English every night
as they ate their meat, potatoes, gravy.
Not you. In your house that smelled like
rose powder, you spoke Spanish formal
as your father, the judge without a courtroom
in the country he floated to in the dark
on a flatbed truck. He walked slow
as a hot river down the narrow hall
of your house. You never dared to race past him,
to say, “Please move,” in the language
you learned effortlessly, as you learned to run,
the language forbidden at home, though your mother
said you learned it to fight with the neighbors.
You liked winning with words. You liked
writing speeches about patriotism and democracy.
You liked all the faces looking at you, all those eyes.
“How did I do it?” you ask me now. “How did I do it
when my parents didn’t understand?”
The family story says your voice is the voice
of an aunt in Mexico, spunky as a peacock.
Family stories sing of what lives in the blood.
You told me only once about the time you went
to the state capitol, your family proud as if
you'd been named governor. But when you looked
around, the only Mexican in the auditorium,
you wanted to hide from those strange faces.
Their eyes were pinpricks, and you faked
hoarseness. You, who are never at a loss
for words, felt your breath stick in your throat
like an ice-cube. “I can't,” you whispered.
“I can't.” Yet you did. Not that day but years later.
You taught the four of us to speak up.
This is America, Mom. The undo-able is done
in the next generation. Your breath moves
through the family like the wind
moves through the trees.
Analysis of A Voice
A Voice whilst not a complex poem in terms of language and form challenges the reader by shifting in time, placing emphasis on different people and events as the mother's life progresses.
For example, in the first stanza the first line depicts a stage and some strong lights, so the scene is somewhat theatrical in nature. There are students present, English speakers, who are affected by a desert sun but still have unrelenting eyes. They come from American homes and have American diets - note the focus on food, always a strong cultural connection there.
Then the mother is introduced, one against the many so to speak. Households are compared and the differences are stark. Spanish is the main language, smells are exotic and a stern father rules over proceedings.
He came in the night to a new country with strange customs, a different language and a different way of doing things. Only in his own house could he keep the Mexican traditions alive. Even his movements were from a hotter climate - he moved like a hot river - and the mother would never think of passing him or using English, even though she needed this language to survive the hostile environment outside the house.
As the poem progresses and the father of the mother fades somewhat into the background, the mother's achievements come to the fore. She managed to cross over and bridge the cultures. She became good with words, competitive in her learning and delivery, despite her parents being unable to truly relate.
There is dialogue with her mother as the daughter, the speaker, looks back. Being good with words and being loud and proud in verbal expression runs in the family, derived from a Mexican aunt.
- But there was a time when the mother had to speak in front of others at an important gathering in the capitol and something went wrong. She felt inferior, too different with all those Americans watching on, her being the only one of Mexican descent.
- Yet, despite this setback the mother, perhaps to compensate, made sure her four children would grow up speaking for themselves, unafraid and confident in their blood.
And still the mother's influence is apparent as the family, now American, live on with a can do attitude.
More Analysis Of A Voice
A Voice is a free verse poem that has no set rhyme scheme and no regular meter (metre in British English). There are 10 stanzas, 9 of them quatrains and the last one a tercet (three lines).
On the page it appears as quite a formal poem, well ordered, but this contrasts with the emotional tension within and the language that moves the content on.
The narrator is telling the family story of her mother so the tone is one of hushed admiration and matter-of-fact earthiness. Basically it is a tale of how a woman, denied a language whilst at home, finally overcomes her fears and comes through, passing on her knowledge to her young ones. The narrator is her thankful daughter.
The main themes involve identity, immigration, language, cultural differences, learning new things, family ties, blood versus milk, overcoming family taboos, commitment, struggle, self-belief and cross-cultural issues.
Note in stanza two the simile like rose powder a contrast to the homes of the stduents in stanza one.
There are others in the text, including slow as a hot river which describes the father's movements in the house, and spunky as a peacock for the voice of the anutie back in Mexico.
And there is the like an ice-cube in stanza 9, alluding to the breath blocking the throat.
The final stanza has like the wind which refers to the mother's voice as it influences the family.
Stanza 8 has a metaphor....Their eyes were pinpricks, meaning their were very small.
In the narrative there is strong use of you - the narrator being totally focused on the mother. Count up the yous and yours and you'll find 29 in total, so there is little doubt that the mother's struggle to overcome her inhibitions is the spotlight theme.
Stanzas 5, 7 and 8 hold the highest concentration, placing more emphasis on the life of the mother.
A certain percentage of the language creates an atmosphere of tension - note words and combos such as unrelenting, never dared, forbidden, fight, spunky, strange faces, pinpricks and stick in the throat.
The style is very much casual/conversational as the daughter reflects on her mother's struggle to pass on to her offspring the language she wasn't allowed to use in the family home.