Julia Alvarez’s poem, “How I Learned to Sweep” feels as if she is sharing how she learned to sweep or she could be talking about the anxiety she felt while watching a war going on in the news which led to her sweeping away death. How Alvarez conveys the true meaning of her poem can be explained through her techniques. To share this story, she uses certain techniques that go against traditional forms of poetry. Alvarez says, “By learning to work the sonnet structure and yet remaining true to my own voice, I made myself at home in that form”, (18). She learned traditional ways of writing poetry, but she was encouraged to find her own voice in her writing by fellow women writers. She uses the tradition and structure of sonnets but infuses her own voice with it.
Alvarez describes her sonnets as “free verse sonnets”. They comprise “ten syllables per line, and the lines are in a loose iambic pentameter with slant rhymes (19). I am unfamiliar with these terms, but when I look them up, they make sense when I read the poem. The iambic pentameter pattern in, “How I Learned to Sweep”, is used sporadically in her poem. It isn’t used every line, but when the poem gets intense, which is where I think the true purpose of this poem lies, this technique is used quite heavily.
Alvarez is handed the broom by her mother, with no true instruction or guidance. She can infer, her mother wants her to sweep because of how she looks at her when she hands her the broom. Alvarez writes,
My mother never taught me sweeping…
She eyed the dusty floor
boldly, and put a broom before
me, and said she’d like to be able
to eat her dinner off that table,
and nodded at my feet, then left.
I knew right off what she expected. (lines 1-8)
So, without much discussion, she proceeds to step and sweep until the floor is clean. This language is clear for the reader to think she figured it out even though she didn’t know what she was doing. There is slight rhyming to the way she begins this poem which is called a slant rhyme; it is not perfect but some of it rhymes.
The sonnet then takes a turn as Alvarez describes what is happening in the news. The news is broadcasting live from the White House as the President talks about the war in the Far East. Alvarez was born after World War II when there was fighting in the Asian Pacific between the British and the Japanese, but being captivated by a news broadcast talking about war is relevant to any age and time period. There is anxiety and curiosity that looms in households as families surround the television to get the latest report. Alvarez expresses this feeling with the iambic pentameter style by writing, “in the Far East our soldiers were/landing in their helicopters/into jungles their propellors/swept like weeds seen underwater” (lines 18-21). This pattern consists of one stressed syllable followed by a long syllable. In this passage I see “their helicopters”, “their propellors”, and “seen underwater” as examples of this style choice. This scene is structured with so much intensity, when read aloud you see the imagery of the soldiers in the helicopters as they land in the jungle. She also compares the helicopter to dragonflies which is an impressive comparison for the reader. I feel the intensity when its read aloud like the sonnet is building up to something. There is also a rhythm to this section of the poem as it builds in tension.
Alvarez next writes that she gets up and sweeps again during this broadcast. She describes the intense way she sweeps coincides with the tension in the news. She says, “I got up and swept again/ as they fell out of the sky./ I swept all the harder when/ I watched a dozen of them die…/ as if their dust fell through the screen/ upon the floor I had just cleaned (lines 26-31). The rhythm in these lines hone in on the anxious feeling of watching soldiers die on screen. This war creates anxiety and terror. These feelings come through as her sweeping becomes harder the more terrifying things show on the television. It is as if it’s now an absent-minded thing. You are so entranced with what you are seeing it now becomes a part of you. The figurative use of the dust coming out of the screen is clever as one’s mind is so intertwined with what it is seeing, it is seeing it as if it is in real life.
Finally, in the poem, her mother comes back into the room, turns off the television, and comments on how beautiful it all looks. Knowing what it took to clean the floor with her intense cleaning directly relating to the watching soldiers die, it is oxymoronic to call it beautiful. She writes about her mother running her clean hand through her hair and over various surfaces in the room. She waits for her verdict and her mother calls everything beautiful. Alvarez uses intensity to close out her poem and sucker punch the reader by writing, “she hadn’t found a speck of death” (39). It should be dust, but considering what she witnessed and the soldiers’ death dust fell through her television screen, its as if nothing ever happened. She wiped all the death dust clean with her new found sweeping skills.