The title of this poem refers to Walker’s age when she wrote it. It was a significant time, a milestone for those who become aware of slipping into middle-age, and need to review their lives. For the poet, her relationship with her father was crucial to her development and maturity. The poem, with subtle understatement, praises his qualities and values.
The poem is in free verse, divided into six uneven-length stanzas. with short, choppy unrhymed lines. The effect is of a mind thinking aloud and straying over poignant memories.
Language and Imagery
The voice is the first person narrator, the poet telling the reader about her father, using language close to everyday speech. In the fourth stanza there is a lyrical feel, the introduction of metaphor, that of cookery and dancing and yoga to to represent life’s range.
The poem ends on a positive note, the loss of her father is mitigated by the positive influences he had on her life and her good memories of him.
Thirty-nine is a significant time in the life of a woman. She reaches her prime and is on the verge of entering forty. It is a difficult phase for her if she is a single mother. Alice Walker had met Melvyn Roseman Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights lawyer in 1965, and had her daughter Rebecca in 1967. They divorced in 1976.The speaker at this juncture has probably reached a stage, where she longs for the presence of a father in her daughter’s life. She thus becomes nostalgic for her own father.
She begins the poem “Poem at Thirty -Nine” by stating how nostalgia set in with thoughts of her Father coming to her in flashback. She wished that he was not so overcome with fatigue when she was born. Her father ” earned only $300 a year from sharecropping and dairy farming” worked hard for a living and could not devote much time to her. According to her, he was “wonderful at math but a terrible farmer”. He taught her to deposit slips and write checks, and how life is lived. She recalls his methods of educating her as he would have explained: “This is the form.” For the speaker, the bits of paper were more to her than just papers…they were for her a better way of life as compared to the life of her father which she had seen. This white collar education was a kind of escapism from the life that she had been a part of. In keeping with this, she had a savings account even while at school.
Like George Washington’s father, he stressed the significance of truth to her, and underlined that uttering the truth did not always entail punishment. As a result, she seemed to be telling the truth always with a no-care attitude, and sometimes was so selfish that the truth of her actions may have grieved him towards his end.
Now she misses her father greatly. She recalls him cooking whole-heartedly and enjoying the act of dancing in the process. The lines may also imply that he was both agile and contemplative in his actions. He craved for the wholesome eating and sharing of good food. This is a pointer to his magnanimity.
Now the speaker feels that she looks and cooks like her father. Her brain is no longer sharper as it used to be-‘my brain light’. For her, now routine has become a mechanical cycle. She is caught in the cycle of actions- “tossing this and that /into the pot.” There is no “seasoning in her life,” no spice or sweetness. Even if something happens twice in her life, it comes across as monotonous. For her, now her sense of satisfaction and pleasure lies in feeding anyone who strays in her way.
Had her father been alive and there, he would have admired her multi-tasking abilities as suited to a woman. To cap it all, in the midst of all this, she finds the time to be meditative on life.
©Rukhaya MK 2011
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