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Iron by Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo’s poem “Iron” was published in the April 2018 issue of Poetry magazine. As a poet, Acevedo often confronts gender, race, and culture through her poems. She is a National Slam Champion, and most of her descriptive imagery and immaculate writing style are evident in her poem “Iron.”

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Analysis of Iron by Elizabeth Acevedo


Summary

The poem “Iron” was written in response to the videos and pictures of black people violently dying in the US. The poem has a very vivid and menacing tone, but in reality, it is about being able to love while living with extreme grief and fear. Acevedo poses the question, “What is a good metaphor for a woman who loves in a time like this?” — showing how the poem is essentially a question, a thought trying to unravel itself.

Meaning

“Iron” is an embodiment of living life in times of despair. It captures the essence of grief, love, fear, hope, and pain – all coming together and unloading on a person at one time. The imagery Acevedo uses creates tension, and the weight of living is portrayed; for example, words like “bullet” and “coroner”; the phrase, “her eye a hook/ fishing for government-issued lead,” etc. These images create a callous tone, similar to the one the poet experienced when she saw the videos and photos of Black people dying violently. This feeling of unease is easily transferred from the speaker to the readers. The poet has done a commendable job in exploring “Diasporic Identity” while using “I am not” to limit her answers.

Structure & Form

“Iron” is written in free-verse form, where no regular rhyme scheme or meter is followed. This type of form is usually used for descriptive and narrative poems. The poem has six verses at the beginning, which are made of two lines. Then Acevedo uses a single-line coda, and lastly, a five-line verse. Overall, the poem has an iambic meter, where a stressed syllable is preceded by an unstressed syllable that does not follow a specific metrical pattern.

Poetic Devices

The poetic devices used in “Iron” by Elizabeth Acevedo are:

  • Enjambement: Where one line continues in the next one, for example, “I am not the coroner who will graze her hand/ over naked knees.”, “Who will swish her fingers/ in the mouth.”, “Who will flip the body over, her eye a hook/ fishing for government-issued lead.” etc.
  • Personification: A literary device where non-living things are given the characteristics of a human being. For example, “I am not the sidewalk, which is unsurprised.”
  • Allusion: An indirect reference to some historical incident is called allusion. For example, “Who will flip the body over, her eye a hook/ fishing for government-issued lead.” Here, “government-issued lead” is used to refer to the first line where the poet says, “I am not the bullet,” as bullets are usually made from lead alloy, and the government usually allows people to issue guns with a permit. This also sheds light on how this poem is about the death of many African-Americans by violent means.
  • Irony: The definition of irony as a literary device is a situation in which there is a contrast between expectation and reality. Here, the poet uses verbal irony; for example, “I am neither           nor romanced by the streetlamp nor candlelight;/ my hands are not an iron, but look, they’re hot.” 
  • Rhetorical Question: A question that does not require a direct response. For example, the poet asks, “What is a good metaphor for a woman who loves in a time like this?”
  • Juxtaposition: Two things being placed together to make contrasting imagery. For example, “I am no scalpel or high thread count sheet. Not a gavel, or hand-painted teacup.”
  • Apostrophe: It is implied when the poet talks to a person or object that is absent from the poem. For example, “What is a good metaphor for a woman who loves in a time like this?”, “my hands are not an iron, but look, they’re hot, look/ how I place them           in love           on his skin,” etc.
  • Alliteration: Use of similar sounds to create a rhythm, for example, “And although I am a poet, I am not the bullet.”


Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation

Lines 1-2

And although I am a poet, …

… heat-search the soft points.

Acevedo begins her poem “Iron” by stating that she is not a bullet and does not search for someone’s weak points that she could utilize for personal gains. The tone the poem takes is conversational and descriptive, hinting at the Slam Poetry Elizabeth Acevedo is famous for.

Lines 3-4

I am not the coroner …

… Who will swish her fingers

In these lines, the poetic persona compares herself to a “coroner,” who inspects the bodies of victims of violent or suspicious deaths to pinpoint the cause of demise. The tone in this verse is oddly romantic and detached.

Lines 5-6

in the mouth. Who will flip …

… government-issued lead.

The speaker continues the previous verse by saying that she won’t be inspecting a dead body for a bullet. This verse has a menacing feel and refers to how people are allowed to carry arms with a permit in her country.

Lines 7-8

I am not the sidewalk, …

… cheek scrapes harsh against it.

In this verse of “Iron,” the speaker removes the possibility of personification or metaphor by saying, “I am not the sidewalk,” but then continues to say that the sidewalk is unsurprised — which again personifies it. This verse simply means that the poet is humane, and unlike a sidewalk, she feels surprised when the powerful people tread all over the weak or harm them.

Lines 9-10

Although I too enjoy …

… on my body with a hard breath;

In the fifth stanza, the speaker says that despite the brutalities in life, she still enjoys the softness of human touch and intimacy. Despite all the burdens and violence in the world, she still finds herself appreciating the warmth of human connections and finds herself being in love.

Lines 11-13

I have …

… die thousands of little deaths.

In this section of “Iron,” Acevedo talks more about being in love. Much like all other things, even lovers carry grief and share it. By saying, “listening to him die thousands of little deaths,” the speaker refers to the vulnerability of being in love and yet savoring every moment of it.

Line 14

What is a good metaphor for a woman …

By making this line a standalone verse, Acevedo conveys the central question that she has been trying to answer throughout the first few verses. In a rhetorical and literal sense, there is no answer to this question. There is no good metaphor that could do justice to a person who carries so much grief, fear, pain, and, most importantly, love.

Lines 15-19

I am no scalpel or high thread count sheet. …

… able to unwrinkle his spine.

In the last verse of “Iron,” Acevedo draws upon contrasting imagery to prove that she is neither of the two extremes: a “scalpel” or a “high thread count sheet.” She says that she is not like “iron,” but her hands are hot. Here, the term “iron” symbolizes power, strength, and hard work. Moreover, with those same hands, she still can “unwrinkle his spine.” It shows that while being in love, she is caring for someone and being cared for.

Themes

Loving in Fear

Acevedo writes “Iron” with conflicting emotions of fear, love, and confusion. This piece was an initial reaction to the videos and photos of Black people violently dying in the US. It reflects upon the idea of how people can still go on with their life while carrying grief. Furthermore, it depicts how life goes on inevitably no matter what is going on in the world and how we find ourselves enjoying and smiling even though the most terrible of things happen around us.

Hope

This poem has a hopeful tone in melancholic times. The line “What is a good metaphor for a woman who loves in a time like this?” — sums up the central idea of the poem. Through these lines, the poet is pondering on this question with the hope of an answer. She begins by stating all the things she is not, and towards the end, she poses the question to the readers in a rhetorical way because there is no correct answer for this. It is a way of carrying tragedy on one’s back while still being hopeful for the future. 

Diasporic Identity

Elizabeth Acevedo is a Dominican-American poet and author. Growing up, Acevedo questioned who she was and figured out what she identified with most. The theme of the “diasporic crisis of dual identity” is evident throughout the poem. This happens when migrant populations retain objective components of a coherent ethnic identity, such as a shared history, language, and culture. In some cases, diasporic identity also contains a powerful link (imaginary or real) to the territorial homeland. Acevedo constantly mentions the things she is not, trying to answer the question about her identity through the poem, “Iron.”

Symbolism

Symbolism refers to the use of specific words to represent a thought or idea. In this poem, Acevedo uses the word “iron,” which is also the title of the poem, and says, “my hands are not an iron, but look, they’re hot, look/ how I place them           in love           on his skin/ and am still able to unwrinkle his spine.” Here, the poet says she is not iron, but like iron, her hands are hot. Iron is something that removes wrinkles from clothing or is used to make a weapon. It also carries oxygen in our blood. In all ways, iron symbolizes strength, power, and hard work.

Historical Context

“Iron” was published in the April 2018 issue of Poetry magazine. It was an initial reaction of Elizabeth Acevedo to the violent deaths of African-Americans. She explores the importance of love in times of fear through a woman’s point of view. 

Questions & Answers

What is the poem “Iron” by Elizabeth Acevedo about?

Elizabeth Acevedo’s poem “Iron” is written in response to the suffering of African-Americans and the inhumane portrayals of their death. Through this piece, the poet describes how love triumphs over the brutalities and the harsh realities of the modern world.

What does the line, “What is a good metaphor for a woman who loves in a time like this?” mean?

This rhetorical question sums up the central idea of the poem. It encaptures the sense that there is no real answer to the question, and life goes on despite all the grief and pain in the world. We will find ourselves falling in love or being happy again inevitably.

What is the theme of “Iron”?

The main theme of this poem is loving while living in times of violence, grief, and fear. It also explores the themes of hope, humanity, feelings, identity, and history.

What is the form of “Iron”?

The poem is written in free-verse, meaning there is no regular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.

What are the poetic devices used in “Iron”?

The poetic devices used in this poem are alliteration, imagery, symbolism, juxtaposition, irony, etc.

What is the tone of “Iron”?

The tone of the poem is conversational, ironic, descriptive, and thoughtful.


Similar Poems about Injustice & Isolation

  • “The Woman” by Kristina Rungano — This piece explores the place of women in Zimbabwean society from the perspective of a newly married woman.
  • “Failure of Communion” by Judith Wright — This poem is about a speaker’s failure to communicate her thoughts in the modern world.
  • “As I Grew Older” by Langston Hughes — In this poem, a speaker describes how it was hard to achieve his dream due to his racial identity.
  • “Crossing the Border” by Joy Harjo — This piece taps on the issue of racism implicitly from the perspective of a group of Indians who were crossing the border.


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