Claribel Alegría


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Sorrow Summary

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Sorrow (1999) is a collection of poetry by Nicaraguan-Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegría. Translated by Carolyn Forché, the 47 short verses gathered here offer a piercing glimpse into Alegría’s grief over the death of her husband and longtime collaborator. By plumbing the depths of her loss, Alegría revisits the details of their married life together, looks forward to an eventual reunion someday, and seeks to understand what it means not only to die, but to truly live, especially without the unflagging support of one’s longtime companion.

In a preface, Forché briefly discusses Alegría’s life and career, adding further context to the poems of this volume. Alegría’s late husband, Darwin J. “Bud” Flakoll, was also Alegría’s translator throughout their marriage, making this the first of her books translated into English by someone else. As a result, Forché studied Flakoll’s translations in order “to hear Claribel Alegría’s music.” Forché’s position as something of an outsider gives her a different perspective on Alegría’s work, observing from a more removed place the intensity of the poet’s loss; her journey through grief and separation to something akin to wholeness, or at least, repair; and the profundity of her sorrow.

Each of the poems in Sorrow appears in two versions, one in the original Spanish, the other in English.

Alegría’s verses are succinct in language but expansive in meaning. Take the opening poem, “Searching for You.” In it, she speaks to her departed husband, explaining that she went out looking for him across valleys, mountains, and seas, even at one point asking the wind where he went. But it was all “useless,” Alegría writes, “you were within me.” The poem is just nine short lines, but in them, the poet details a monumental voyage of the heart and spirit. Getting from those first lines of “crossing valleys/ and mountains” to the last—”you were within me”—is the product of much hard work and soul searching. This is indicative of all the poems assembled here: concise accounts of long, arduous dark nights of the soul. Their brevity only underscores their power and the importance of the revelations and realizations reached by the poet. By distilling her journey to its barest essentials, Alegría shows readers that the landscape of loss is not an easy one to traverse, but it is one full of lessons—and one we will all, whether we like or not, have to take for ourselves someday.

The poems in Sorrow are not only personal; they also speak to larger cultural relationships to immortality. Alegría does not doubt that she will one day see her husband again; it is a reunification for which she yearns, and one she feels is as destined and immutable as death itself. She imagines their meeting as wings folding together or “particles of light” dancing—that gentle and easy and natural. Alegría has witnessed plenty of death in her life, and though her loss is profound, she never for a moment considers this an end. She knows she will someday see her husband again. Her job—as a poet, as a partner, as an observer—is to bridge that cosmic divide through words and attention, through the cultivation of memory that will keep him close until the longed-for reunion occurs.

Mythology is a common theme in many of Sorrow‘s poems. Alegría draws power and inspiration from Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. She summons Hermes, the god of heraldry, who can call upon the dead. Sisyphus, Icarus, and Orpheus are among the other figures she connects with, each one offering a different thread to the underworld, a new possible connection to the departed soul. Alegría compares herself to Prometheus, “tied to time/ and cannot escape.”

Time, too, appears as a character repeatedly in these poems. It is a subject of both joy and frustration for Alegría, but one she investigates wholeheartedly and is not afraid to experiment with. Time often takes on fluidity, an easy malleability, and Alegría almost arranges and rearranges it to test the boundary between the past and the present, between what is and what will be, between the living and the dead. But through all her expeditions into the vagaries of time, Alegría remains rooted, “seized hold” by the strength of her connection with her late husband.

In the end, Sorrow is just as much about life as it is about death. The poems are acutely personal and stunningly universal in their scope. They are a travelogue through the valleys of grief while also serving as a how-to on living. Alegría never forgets that darkness and light are two sides of the same coin. She honors her grief without forgetting the happiness she and her husband shared. She understands that what is worth having is also worth losing.