In Exchange for my Absence by Cynthia Guardado explores loneliness, with the poet visiting her grandfather for the last time. Guardado pities her grandfather, seeing his existence as sad and empty, filling his days with pointless ‘movie marathons’. There is a lack of love in the poem, Guardado realizing that this man has become a fragment of what he was when she was a child.
He never leaves his home, the visits from Guardado being his only form of company. The poem is somber, exploring loneliness with a bitter resentment. Guardado doesn’t want to see this man ever again, knowing that his life has faded into nothingness. It is an incredibly sad depiction of the elderly, Guardado giving up on her grandfather and deciding to stop visiting him. Much like the fish that is ‘defenseless… in air’, she knows her grandfather will never leave his home, continuing on this depressing pathway until the very end.
You can read the full poem here.
Guardado’s In Exchange for my Absence is written over 16 lines, without any stanza division or with any regulation of sentence length. The single stanza form of the poem seems incredibly constrained when reading, the verse tight and lacking metrical freedom. This constrained structure could reflect Guardado’s grandfather’s own existence, not being able to go out anymore and instead of living out his days by himself in his home. The unchanging structural form reflects this life, her grandfather doing the same thing day after day.
One technique that Guardado uses in writing In Exchange for my Absence is caesura. Caesura creates a metrical disruption in the middle of a line, forcing a momentary pause that stunts the poem and fractures the rhythm. In doing this, Guardado both emphasizes the following and preceding images, while also using this disrupted rhythm to reflect the solitary life of the grandfather – his life just being a series of uninspired events strung together in short sentences.
Another technique that Guardado uses when writing the poem is a metaphor. The poet uses the image of a ‘fish’ doing ‘circles in a bowl’ to represent the grandfather’s life. He is alone, swimming endlessly in his confined space. In line with the trapped fish, they exist only in one location, continuing endlessly until the end.
Abuelo holds the end of a broom halfway bent(…)in order to begin I must catch it. With a bucket I make waves
The opening line of In Exchange for my Absence presents Guardado’s Latin roots, using the Spanish word for grandfather, ‘Abuelo’, clearly insinuating that this is how she knows and refers to him. The change between Spanish and English is an important aspect of the poem, with Guardado perhaps suggesting that her grandfather is even further isolated due to the fact he only knows Spanish. Guardado is Salvarodian-America, suggesting that while she fluently speaks English and Spanish, older members of her family may never have learned English.
The first image Guardado uses to describe her abuelo is the man trying ‘to scrub clean places in the wall/he can no longer reach’, the impossible task presenting an element of pity around the elderly man. The insinuation of ‘no longer reach’ suggests that he once could get to these places, now having shrunk in size and statue being cut off from these high locations. This can be understood as a metaphor, with society’s continual shutting away of old people into smaller and smaller locations (like care homes) leading to them literally being cut off from the rest of society. The idea that he can ‘no longer reach’, could represent the idea that he has lost his potential, Guardado knowing that he will continue to live his life in this depressing way.
The activity of ‘I climb’, Guardado using the first person pronoun of ‘I’ contrasts her own activity against his lack of movement, the idea that he only ‘tries to scrub’ is an incomplete action. Guardado’s youth is contrasted against his age, the man-made further pitiful by her own agility. She steps ‘into the water-basin’, representing entering her abuelo’s home, visiting him in his metaphorical fishbowl.
The idea that he is hidden in a ‘dark corner’ further represents the solitary life he leads, ‘dark’ being a reference to obscurity and lack of happiness. The old man is sitting in the dark, waiting for someone to come and visit him. This is an incredibly tragic image, exploring how the older generation of society are treated.
in shallow water, search for what is tucked away from sight.(…)the magic of childhood gone like his clamorous
The first lines the reader hears from Guardado’s grandfather are ‘Me siento solo [I feel alone]’, instantly characterizing him as a deeply ‘lonely’ man. The length of his ‘days lonely, long’ further this sense of nothingness within his life, living day after day in a state of boredom, passing time with ‘movie marathons’. The life of ‘abuelo’ is represented by boring actions, the man unable to continue with his life and instead of living in this purgatory of uneventful actions.
The metaphor of ‘fish circles in a bowl’ can be applied directly to Guardado’s grandfather. The man lives only within his house, ‘a bowl’ in which he ‘circles’, the insinuation of this verb suggesting that he repeats the same mundane tasks over and over again.
In response to this, Guardado knows that tis is the last time she will visit him, she ‘won’t visit/again tomorrow’, she has had enough of watching. While she once loved her grandfather, he is not the same person he was when she was in ‘childhood’, the ‘magic’ she attaches to his memory had disappeared with his youth.
laugh, murky like the chaparro he still drinks. Abuelo(…)concrete floor, its fins will shudder in air.
In Exchange for my Absence is incredibly depressing, with the final lines furthering this sense of the ‘empty’ life her abuelo is living. He believes that if the fish were to leave the bowl, it would be ‘defenceless…shudder[ing] in the air’. Guardado uses this metaphor to attribute the idea from her grandfather’s perspective, he believes that he will not survive if he leaves this place. The final lines reveal that he is content to live this way forever, continuing his mundane existence until the end of his days.