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Makeshift Altar

By Amy M. Alvarez

In her debut collection, Makeshift Altar, Amy M. Alvarez explores her origins—

This is how it begins:
with my mother born
in Spanish Town, with
my father born in
Ponce. I was born
on the island of

Despite having grown up in a city, the speaker has not lost sight of her roots, which are alive in her in ways that are both beautiful and haunting. The poem, “Jíbara Negra,” goes on to reflect on the meaning of home (jíbara refers to a Puerto Rican farmer, someone with deep ties to the land):

I am a city girl, but
my parents taught
me to be a jíbara—
at home on horses,
in tents, en el campo

In “Fly,” the speaker recalls the summer her Jamaican grandmother came to visit and how their differing worldviews led to frequent clashes: “She nagged me about biting my nails / about dressing like a man, a hoodlum.” The grandmother can’t abide the speaker’s behavior, which flies in the face of traditional gendered expectations:

                                I see you into all this
rap nonsense. Just make sure whoeva you
bring home, that there’s some cream in
his coffee. You hear? Or just drink milk!

Here, the grandmother is urging the speaker to find a lighter-skinned partner to “elevate” her status (or, as the saying goes in many Caribbean and Latin American countries, to “improve the race”). In “How to Date a White Boy,” the speaker challenges the grandmother’s views by asserting her own self-worth:

Do not be his melanated test drive.
You are no one’s enigma
or experiment.

Bold and tender in their consideration of the author’s identity as a Black woman of Puerto Rican and Jamaican descent, Alvarez’s poems also grapple with dominant colonial narratives and internalized racism. Throughout the collection the speaker reclaims her own narrative and the right to tell her story: “I want to only say yes to myself / for a little while.”

Reviewed By Leonora Simonovis
Cover of Makeshift Altar by Amy M. Alvarez
Publisher The University Press of Kentucky
Pages 108
Date March 1, 2024
Price $21.95