Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Elements of San Joaquin is a long poem divided into seven sections that together make up the “Elements” of this agricultural workers’ world. “Elements” is an interesting word choice, as it has connotations of scientific, objective discourse, while the poem is a direct personal statement. “Elements” may also refer to the four classical elements of the universe: earth, air, fire, and water.
The first section of the poem is titled “Field.” The field is described in harsh, naturalistic terms; forces of nature impose their presence and will upon the impoverished workers who work the field. One of these forces, the wind, “sprays dirt into my mouth/ The small, almost invisible scars/ On my hands.” The speaker is literally marked by these natural forces; this is not a pastoral communion but a painful union. In the second stanza, there are some positive suggestions, as the speaker’s pores “have taken in a seed of dirt of their own.” Yet the seed image is ironic because it is not a seed that will flower or produce anything that will sustain life.
The forces in the field continue making marks upon the speaker as they create “lines/ On my wrists and palms.” The last stanza brings together the separate parts of the poem. The speaker is “becoming the valley”; humans and nature are, apparently, united. That unity, however, is ironically reversed in the last two lines, when the speaker realizes that the soil...
(The entire section is 473 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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