‘To My Brother’ explores the ways even cherished memories can be marred by the circumstances surrounding them. In particular, the poem presents two contrasting themes: a dream of lifting oneself out of poverty and the obstructions that make realizing it so impossibly difficult. Through imagery and figurative language, Cervantes gives vociferous support to the sustaining of such simple but profoundly human dreams as desiring a better life for yourself and those you love.
Explore To My Brother
'To My Brother' by Lorna Dee Cervantes recreates an impression of the speaker's impoverished childhood and the ways they attempted to overcome it.
‘To My Brother’ sees the speaker reminiscing on memories with their brother, focusing on how they strove to make the best of their poverty-stricken lives. The poem is also addressed not just to the speaker’s brother but, as the poem’s first line clarifies, the “lumpen bourgeoisie” resigned to their economic status. Much of the poem deals with the speaker’s inspired attempts to escape the “dreary setting” they find themselves in but are thwarted by their limited financial means, specifically the pitfalls of being poor (i.e., drug use, cycles of debt).
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘To My Brother’ is composed of nine stanzas (the first “stanza” is a single line stylized as a subheading) without any definitive rhyme scheme or meter. Cervantes utilizes enjambment to weave the poem’s cadence around her sentences, which extend between the eight short three-lined stanzas. This contributes to the stream-of-consciousness structure of the poem, presenting the stanzas as a collection of interspersed thoughts in the mind of the speaker.
‘To My Brother’ relies mainly on imagery and figurative language to contextualize the speaker’s memories of growing up with their brother. Some of the more striking images include descriptions of the city they live in (“smog-strewn avalanche / of searchlights”) and their observations therein (“a bicker / to buy a new used car”). There are also unique turns of phrases Cervantes injects with kineticism: “buzzing shift” and “work my mind’s way.” As well as one’s imbued with ardent hope (“a glow in the heart all night.”).
The poem also contains examples of metaphor, which highlight both her sublime creativity (“The air was a quiver / of thoughts we drew from”) and the dismal reality (“Sun, scarcely a penny”) they tried to escape from. Cervantes uses personification when describing how “every night gave up” and simile for the poem’s finale (“Our dreams wafted over the sullen skyline / like crazy meteors of flying embers:”).
and for the lumpen bourgeoisie
The first line of ‘To My Brother’ is written as a continuation of its title as a pseudo-subheading. The speaker is addressing not just their brother in this poem but also a group they refer to as the “lumpen bourgeoisie,” borrowing a word from Marxist theory to describe an underclass uninterested and unaware of its own economic disparities. As much of the poem deals with the speaker’s memories of growing up impoverished, this first line is a reminder that what follows is as much an ode to those just trying to survive (like the speaker’s brother) and a rebuke of the ignorance that aides in permitting such unjust circumstances.
We were so poor.
of thoughts we drew from
As if to provide an explanation for their annoyance at the “lumpen bourgeoisie,” the speaker opens stanza two with a blunt statement of fact (“We were so poor.”) that hangs over the rest of the poem. Both the emotional and economic emptiness of that statement is what connects, somewhat contradictory, the spacious imagery of the “air” in line two. The piece of figurative language it belongs to (“The air was a quiver / of thoughts we drew from”) illustrates the freedom and creativity the speaker still reveled in despite being poor. But it also implies an ability to create or discover out of the nothingness other people ignore or take for granted.
to poise, unsaid
Cervantes uses enjambment to link her images and thoughts across stanzas. The metaphor the speaker uses in stanza two continues into stanza three, explaining that the “thoughts” pulled from the air are used to “poise, unsaid” within their “ineffable / world.” The speaker relies on these thoughts to find balance in a world that they describe as inexpressible — possibly because of its treatment of the poor.
A more autobiographical reading of these lines could also allude to Cervantes’ own experience with Spanish, a language she did not learn at an early age because her parents discouraged its use out of concern it would lead to racism and ostracism. Taking this route, the “thoughts” could refer to the Spanish words Cervantes was only allowed to speak in her mind, which would explain why they sit poised but “unsaid” and her description of such a world as “ineffable” (i.e., not to be uttered out of taboo).
Sun, scarcely a penny
in that dreary setting,
Stanza four opens with another striking poetic imagism as the speaker describes their tangible distance from the sun, which appears as “scarcely a penny” in the sky. The sun as a symbol for warmth — the absence of which is further emphasized when the speaker refers to the “dreary setting” — builds on the poem’s growing despondent tone. The choice of diction in the comparison of the sun to a penny, the smallest monetary unit in the United States and, therefore one far more relied upon by those in poverty, also alludes to the poem’s motif of the troubles of the economically misfortunate. The final line personifies the speaker’s evenings in this dismal landscape as being given up.
to a smog-strewn avalanche
Enjambment continues the statement that ends stanza four, revealing that the speaker’s nights are relinquished to a “smog-strewn avalanche / of searchlights.” Combining images of both pollution and possibly policing (if the “searchlights” are from police helicopters) into a scene of eerie foreboding.
to buy a new used car,
The second image, the night “gave up” is a far more corporeal one but no less impressionable. As the speaker says in the previous stanza, the “bicker” that’s heard is over the purchase of the oxymoronic “new used car”(another allusion to the speaker’s economic class). Nothing sporty either, but rather the kind of car used by a family. It’s unclear if the car is for the speaker specifically or just a negotiation overheard by them. The fragment of the next sentence, “I worked” might imply the effort required on their part to pay for the vehicle.
I could work my mind’s way
out of there, out of needing
In stanza seven of ‘To My Brother,’ the speaker imparts their desire to escape where they came from. The “dreary setting” in stanza four and, by extension, their own poverty. This motif of escape also directly precedes the haggling over the “new used car,” which represents both the financial and physical means with which the speaker might get away. Unfortunately, the speaker is not able to escape, and the curious phrase “work my mind’s way” (which recalls the thoughts pulled from the air in stanza one) is used to imply their attempt to navigate a way out.
We were brilliant at wishing.
In stanza eight, the speaker divulges the roadblocks that kept them from actualizing their escape. The things they fought to avoid “needing” in the previous stanza range from the “dime bag of uppers” (i.e., slang for a class of drugs referred to as stimulants, which increase energy and alertness) used to prepare for the next “buzzing shift” (i.e., work).
In line two, the structure of “We paid our bills” echoes the “We were so poor” of stanza two, though this time, instead of being a blunt statement of fact, it’s one that’s both dull and immensely crucial. The terrible implication is that only the poor mark such a chore-like necessity as paying one’s bills as worthy of mention in a record of life. And like the reliance on drugs to work a job that both pays for and perpetuates further drug use, the cycle of paying bills is also what keeps the speaker impoverished. The final line is both a hopeful and heartbreaking reminder that the things that keep the speaker afloat are distinctly intangible.
Our dreams wafted over the sullen skyline
like crazy meteors of flying embers:
Stanza nine ends the poem in a decisively life-affirming tone. The speaker describes their dreams wafting over the “sullen skyline,” using a simile to compare them to “crazy meteors.” Once more, the two contrasting images of ardent dreams versus a depressing reality. But like stanza two and the “quiver of thoughts” drawn from the empty air, the speaker’s dreams are real enough to give excessive light. Instead of formless thoughts, they’re now “flying embers” and though unspoken, without form, they “glow in the heart all night.” Sustaining the speaker through financial disparity and the existential bankruptcy of the world around them.
From the very first line, the poem develops its theme of economic inequities. The speaker, throughout the poem, describes wanting nothing more than to escape from all the trappings of poverty but is unable to do so. But they also express tangible and memorable happiness in, at the very least, having a companion to suffer through the experience: their brother. As a result, the poem is as much about the effects of financial inequality as it is about the ways in which one sustains themselves through it.
There’s a good chance Cervantes drew on much of her childhood experiences living in the Mission District of San Francisco (and later San Jose) to write the poem. She also had a brother to whom she was close and, as alluded to in the poem, was not allowed to speak Spanish at home for fear it would cause run-ins with racism.
Throughout the poem, Cervantes uses many examples of figurative language, often creating a dreamlike mood that feels indicative of memory itself. This makes sense, given the entirety of the poem is a letter steeped in deep ruminations of a traumatic but checkered with moments of happiness.
- ‘Love of My Flesh, Living Death‘ by Lorna Dee Cervantes – a poem in which the speaker voices their inner fears about their relationship.
- ‘A un Desconocido‘ by Lorna Dee Cervantes – a poem that grapples with the speaker’s questions of identity, which appear incompatible to the world around them.
- ‘Brothers’ by Andrew Forster – a poem about the relationships between a group of boys.