‘Poem at Thirty-Nine’ by Alice Walker is a short free verse poem that is composed in a “stream of thought” style. Each line is short, no more than four or five words, forcing the speaker onward at a quick pace. Walker’s lines drift through the life of her father and provide the reader with a patchy, endearing overview of who he was.
The narrative that Walker crafts in this piece are extremely personal and relaxed. Her tone is informal and seems to invite the reader closer to her, into her most private life. The poem is commonly thought to have been written by Walker when she was thirty-nine years old and reminiscing on the times that she spent with her father.
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Summary of Poem at Thirty-Nine
The poem begins with the speaker clearly stating how much she misses her father and how she regrets the hard life he had to live. She describes the ways that her father taught her. These range from how to cook to how to save money for a better future. She closely associates her father with money and banking slips, he was frugal from a young age and passed that trait onto her.
She describes his movements in the kitchen and how now, after he is gone, she has taken on his eccentricities, sharing food as liberally as he did and never living the same day twice. Poem at Thirty-Nine concludes with the speaker finding peace in her memories and the thought that her father would be proud of the woman she has become.
Analysis of Poem at Thirty-Nine
The first lines of this piece introduce to the reader, the speaker’s father. This unnamed parent is going to be the all-encompassing theme of the poem.
Alice Walker’s speaker, who has been named as the poet herself, begins by making clear to the reader that she deeply misses her father. When she was born, he was “so tired,” and she regrets this fact. She wishes that things have started out differently between them and that he had not been so put upon by life.
She closely associates her father with money, and the writing of,
…deposit slips and checks
This is a hint that perhaps finances were among the reasons her father was “so tired” when she was born. As a young child, she most likely saw him constantly troubled with money matters.
Additionally, her father was the one who taught her how to properly handle her own paper finances. He “taught” her how and showed her “the form…the way it is done.” His experience with writing checks and deposit slips was a skill that he was able to pass on. While it is not exactly a happy memory revolving around joyous times, it is poignant.
As Walker grew, she learned to value frugality. She realized how her father’s own opinion about money changed when he was young, and he began to see them
as a way
He saved in an effort to move one, to find elsewhere, somewhere better and he knew he couldn’t do that without financial support. He began to save and “even in high school” he “had a savings account.” Unlike other young people, Walker’s father did not squander his money, he saved it from the beginning.
The speaker continues on, informing the reader of an important fact of life that her father taught her. That telling him the truth, did not mean “a beating.” This idea can be expanded and related to other parts of life as well. Even if the truth is hard to tell or hard for someone to hear, doesn’t mean that it should not be told.
She does realize that as she was growing up and becoming her own person, making mistakes and explaining them to her father, that these “truths” bust has troubled and “grieved” him. It seems as if he was, to an extent, attempting to hide his stress over his daughter, but she saw through it.
At what it is about the halfway point of Poem at Thirty-Nine, Walker reminds the reader of how she misses her father. This statement is repeated to make sure that no one misses the point of the piece. It is not about her growing up, it is about who her father was and how she wants to make him proud.
In this section of lines, she speaks on what he loved, and what he enjoyed doing. His cooking, she says, was like art. He “danc[ed]” as he moved through the kitchen, effortless and peacefully. His actions were like those performed in “a yoga meditation,” all completely thought out and intentional.
Additionally, Walker says that her father enjoyed the aftermath of cooking. He “craved” the sharing of copious amounts of “good food” with those around him.
Walker now brings her reader into the present in which she describes what kind of impact her father’s habits have had on her own life. She has taken all he taught her and she now “look[s] and cook[s]” just like him. She has his movements while in the kitchen as well a similarity to his physical appearance. These are things that are clearly relished by the speaker. She loves the fact that she is similar to him in these fundamental ways.
Walker continues on to say that while she is cooking, just like her father, her “brain [is] light” as she tosses the foods around and into the pots. The speaker takes the elements of her father’s life that she admired and does not live one day like another. She continues the metaphor of cooking and says that she does not season any of her “life / the same way.”
The speaker continues to speak on the person she has become in relation to who her father was. She says that she is
…happy to feed
whoever strays my way.
This makes clear that Walker is just as open-hearted as her father was with his “voluptuous” sharing of food.
In the final five lines of Poem at Thirty-Nine, Walker is reflecting on the past. She believes, from all that she knows about who her father was, that he would have “grown / to admire / the woman I’ve become.” This tells the reader two things, first, that she is proud of who she has become and gains pleasure from thinking her father would have been as well. Second, that at some point in their lives he was not proud of her. He would have “grown” to admire her.
The last two lines leave the reader with a calm and peaceful feeling. Walker sees the aspects of herself that she thinks her father would have admired and listed them for the reader. She imagines he is proud of her ability to cook, write and chop wood. These three aspects connect the corners of Walker’s life.
The last line allows Poem at Thirty-Nine to drift off through its ending. The speaker has come to a place of peace in which she can stare into the warmth of a fire and feel joy in her memories.
About Alice Walker
Alice Walker was born in Eatonton, Georgia in February of 1944 and was one of eight siblings. While growing up Walker developed a passion for writing after she was accidentally blinded in one eye and her mother allowed her to write instead of doing chores. As a young woman, she received a scholarship to attend Spelman College. She spent two years there and then transferred Sarah Lawrence College from which she graduated in 1965. That same year she moved to Mississippi and began her long association with the Civil Rights movement
Her first book of poetry, Once, was published in 1968, followed two years later by her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland. These volumes, as well as those that would be published over the following years often told coming of age stories and depicted the struggles of African American communities.
In 1982, after moving to California, Walker completed her most well-known novel, The Color Purple. This book describes the life of an African American woman growing up in a town in Georgia. It won the Pulitzer Prize and was later adapted into a movie by Steven Spielberg in 1985. Since the publication of this novel Walker has continued to write, publishing novels and books of short stories, such as The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart, in 2000, as well as a number of other volumes of poetry. Two of these volumes, A Poem Traveled Down My Arm and Goodness of the Earth were published in 2003.