An Analysis of Julia Alvarez’s Poem, “Touching Bottom” Essay

In the poem’s first stanza, Alvarez says, “Sometimes the best advice comes randomly”—but without intent, how can it be advice? Perhaps good advice consists simply of one’s own ideas, rendered into words by another and recognized by the self as something true. If we go by this definition, then the random pieces of advice are, indeed, good advice. She is thus saying that some of the best “advice” is recognized by the self and in the self, and not merely received from others.

Such advice is possibly worth more than any intentional directive, because the meaning of the advice is something that one makes for oneself.

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Alvarez implies that good advice is abundant, but requires some recognizing—which is what she does. To be able to give good advice, a person must think like the recipient of the advice, and who better to think like the recipient than the recipient herself?

Alvarez creates remarkable associations in her mind between randomly heard directives and the troubles of her life; she is actually both the giver and the receiver of the random “advice”, and whoever (or whatever) “gave” her the advice only has an intermediary role.

These random pieces of advice are nothing like what we usually conceive advice to be, but are simply reminders of things that she already knew. Thus these random pieces of advice that she recognizes are essentially advice that she gives to herself.

In the second stanza, Alvarez talks of the power of these random bits of wisdom. She realizes that “a minotaur of your own making”—that is, self-imposed limitations—puts the mind into a certain degree of paralysis, and that randomly received advice, in their simplicity, have the power to awaken an awareness of truisms deeply buried in the subconscious. Alvarez in essence, is talking about the “shock of recognition” that she experiences when she hears these random bits of meaning. It takes these to remind her of her own good ideas that she may have unintentionally discarded into the “dark labyrinth” of her mind.

Additionally, Alvarez implicitly contrasts her random bits of “advice” with true advice intentionally given by others—too often, such advice is derived from the experiences of the giver and not the receiver. The poem, because of its focus on “accidental” advice, reminds us of the tendency of people to ignore intentionally given advice, no matter how good, because advice is usually given based on the perceived needs of the recipient; although these needs are often misidentified. This contrasts with her accidental bits of advice, which by their very nature are good and well received.

The random advice that Alvarez hears makes her capable of  “touching bottom.” Although “touching bottom” in general usage has the negative meaning of reaching the lowest point of something (such as when a company goes bankrupt), what she means by having “touched bottom in my life” is that she realized and recognized the basic and most important aspects of her life. The examples that she gives of these bits of advice, such as “Please hold through the silence” (which she is able to connect to her problem of writer’s block) are of secondary importance, serving only to illustrate and strengthen the poem’s main point, which is that one needs only to look into the self to find wisdom.

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