The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Claribel Alegría’s “Documentary” is a nonstanzaic, 112-line poem about the poet’s homeland, El Salvador. The poem begins by inviting the reader to become a camera in the hands of the poem’s narrator, who speaks as a documentary film director. Together reader and narrator explore El Salvador, from the anthills to the harvest of coffee beans. The poem presents quick, vivid images of the El Salvadoran people, social problems, climate, food, and animal life in the same way a film or television crew might. After cataloging the characteristics of El Salvador, the poem’s narrator laments the country’s innocence and its inability to prosper.

“Documentary” opens by calling El Salvador a “queen ant/ extruding sacks of coffee,” the country’s primary export. The poem’s next image is of a family asleep in a ditch, presumably exhausted from working the harvest on a coffee plantation. As a camera might, the poem shifts to another image “among trees” of “rapid,/ dark-skinned fingers/ stained with honey.” Coffee berries must be handpicked because no one has yet found a way to harvest them by machine, and they must be picked quickly, just after they change from yellow to red. The juice from the red coffee berries stains whatever it touches.

Moving from the hands of the coffee harvesters, the poet contrasts “a long shot” of workers or “ant men/ trudging down the ravine/ with sacks of coffee” with the image of “girls...

(The entire section is 522 words.)

Documentary Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Alegría opens her poem with a simple poetic conceit. The reader is told to be the poet’s camera and, as such, remember what the poet sees in El Salvador as clearly as the film in a camera records images. The conceit is sustained for the first twenty-seven lines of the poem and allows the poet to pun the technical terms used by photographers and film directors. For example, the reader is told to “focus” on a family sleeping in a ditch. The poet’s choice of this word influences the reader to consider how, in spite of exhausting labor, it is not unusual for an El Salvadoran family to have inadequate shelter. Similarly, when the poem says to “shift to a long shot” so that the coffee harvesters appear to be a “file of ant men/ trudging down the ravine,” the reader can understand how El Salvadoran men are like worker or soldier ants, spending their lives serving a central authority. The word “cut” ends the photographic conceit but not the series of images that continue through the middle of the poem.

“Documentary” is a didactic lyric poem, written mostly in iambic monometers, dimeters, and trimeters. The varying line lengths contribute to the drama of the poem. In several places the poet uses one-word lines to emphasize the most significant items in a long list: “blood/ illiteracy/ tuberculosis/ misery.” Further, the poet is careful to incorporate into the poem Spanish names from the native El Salvadoran dialect for various fruits...

(The entire section is 415 words.)