A un Desconocido by Lorna Dee Cervantes explores the search for identity within a world not made for the poet. She finds trouble in coming to know herself, searching for links to her true identity that end in confusing contrasts. Throughout the poem, there is a sense that she is a secondary thought, with the world for males ‘not of my making’ suggesting that she feels oppressed by her perceived place in society.
A un Desconocido by Lorna Dee Cervantes begins with the concept of searching and ends with the inability to capture something. This thing she is looking for is a sense of self-identity, with Cervantes not being completely certain who she really is. While grappling with these self-driven existential questions of identity, she is also trying to find her place in a gendered world. Cervantes discusses the problem of feeling like a second class citizen in her daily life, with the importance of men forcing her into a subordinate role. There is no moment of clarity or acceptance within the poem, with Cervantes instead finishing the poem with a longing for something she is yet to gain – mourning her lacking sense of self.
You can read the full poem here.
Lorna Dee Cervantes splits A un Desconocido into four stanzas, measuring differing line lengths. The first stanza measures 6 lines, the second and third 9 lines each, and the final stanza only having two lines. The sense of disruption present in the rhyme scheme reflects Cervantes’ own uncertainty in life, with her tumultuous relationship within her own self-identity represented through the unstable stanza length. Not only this, but there is a certain absence of any rhyme within the poem, perhaps further signifying a lack of connection, here pointing to her disconnection with her sense of identity.
A un Desconocido Analysis
The title is written in Spanish, and translates as ‘To a Stranger’. The insinuation of ‘Stranger’, combined with the search for identity presented within the poem instantly furthers Cervantes’ idea that she has a lack of connection with her own identity. The inherent othering present in a description less ’stranger’ insinuates that Cervantes no longer recognises herself, or perhaps never did.
Having the poem framed through the lens of ‘To a’ person creates the narrative that this is a discussion, or perhaps even a sort of letter, that Cervantes writes in order to regain a connection to her own identity. The voice of the poem is therefore incredibly personal, as seen by the constant use of the first person pronoun ‘I’ within A un Desconocido.
The poem begins with Cervantes focusing on the action of searching, ‘I was looking’ forming a key narrative that extends through the rest of the poem. By placing the personal pronoun ‘I’ as the first word of the poem, a glimpse of the personal nature of the poem is established, with A un Desconocido quite literally being a discussion with, or to, herself. The tense used within ‘looking’, the present continuous, suggests that this is an ongoing search. As we know from the end of the poem, Cervantes never feels she regains that knowledge or connection with herself, and therefore the search, ‘looking’, continues.
The contrast between ‘black as old lava’ and ‘white coral’ simultaneously present conflict between opposing colours and images of nature. Within ‘black’ and ‘white’ Cervantes creates a clear contrast, suggesting that her identity in this current moment is completely different from what it once was, or perhaps could be in the future. The stark use of colour emphasises the lack of connection, the huge difference furthering the distance between where she is, and wants to be mentally. Cervantes then draws upon the semantics of nature to further is contrast, ‘lava’ and the earth being set in contrast against ‘coral’ and the ocean.
The use of ‘it’ enacts a sense of Othering, with Cervantes relying on the formless shape of that ‘desconocido’ to contrast directly to her own identity. She is unsure of who she is, with the non-specific ‘it’ being central in defining the lack of identity she feels.
The concept of identity stems even within the central object she writes about within this stanza, the ‘hair’ she attempts to visualise being a symbol of identification. Indeed, a single strand of hair could be argued as a microcosm for a person themselves, representing core features of someone.
The contrasting natural images are continued within this stanza, ‘desiring fire in a web of tide’ seeming almost Petrarchan in conceit. Cervantes is constantly being pulled, concurrently, to the poles of identity, never sure exactly what defines her truly. This idea continues throughout this stanza, ‘wet ashes’ being placed within the barren ‘desert’
Cervantes suggests that one reason she fails to feel comfortable in her own identity is due to being a woman in a ‘world/not of my making’. She refers to how society seems to place men in roles of importance, often relegating women to social atmospheres in which they are subordinate to men. By referring to men as the ‘sun’, while women are only ‘the moon’, Cervantes extends these ideas of social classification, with the female gender being ‘reduced’ by the societal sexism that presses down upon her.
The quadruple use of a question mark within this stanza leads to a furthering of the uncertainty Cervantes feels. She does not understand who she is, or her place in the world, with society telling her one thing while she feels another. The first account of this, ‘me?’ acts as a symbol of the poem, the uncertainty around the self a repeating theme. Cervantes, not knowing who she is nor where she fits into society, is lost in a sea of contrasting images and ideas. The constant questioning representing her feeling of total disorientation.
The final stanza is comprised of only two lines, with the central idea being the desire to capture her own identity, being one with it. She wants to ‘have you’, referring to her sense of self, yearning to know her own identity for who she truly is. Yet, even in this desire, there is a level of uncertainty, the first image conjured in this stanza being of ‘a store I could throw’, actually displaying a rejection of identity. This final stanza, often showing realisation or acceptance, only furthers her sense of confusion. A un Desconocido does not end with a resolution, but with Cervantes slipping further into despair at the fleeting and changing nature of identity.