The Poem

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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 in colored skirts” who “laugh and chatter” while they fill “their baskets/ with berries.” The two images present the idea that while harvesting coffee is undeniably hard work, it is also a time of community. El Salvador’s class system is also presented by contrasting images. The reader is asked to “hard focus on the flies/ spattering” the face of a “pregnant mother/ dozing in the hammock” and then “cut” to a “terrace of polished mosaics” where “maids in white aprons/ nourish the ladies/ who play canasta.” The card-playing women “feel sorry for Cuba,” thus foreshadowing the poem’s subsequent mention of “the feudal power/ of fourteen families,” or the wealthy landowners who, with the military, control the government of the fourteen divisions of El Salvador.

The poem then shifts from specific images to general ones. The village of Izalco “sleeps” at the foot of a volcano with the same name which, with “a subterranean growl,” makes the villagers “tremble.” Children die early in this poverty-stricken country, a fact the poem recognizes with the words “besides coffee/ they plant angels.” Poverty forces women to “wash clothing” in the river that flows alongside a highway built to carry the coffee harvest. In the southern El Salvadoran town of Panchimalco a prisoner waits to board a plane filled with “coffee growers/ and tourists.” When the coffee harvest arrives in the marketplace, the narrator lists the native products, including “piles” of native fruits and foods available there. After the coffee harvest is in the millhouse, the poem winds to a close as the narrator catalogs the reasons her country is “wounded” and why it has become her “child,” her “tears,” her “obsession.”

Forms and Devices

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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...

(This entire section contains 415 words.)

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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 available at the marketplace. The poet lists each fruit (“nances,” “nisperos,” “zapotes,” “jocotes”), honoring and respecting the language of the El Salvadoran people.

Alegría’s poem uses not only concrete language but also concrete images, most of which involve the country’s social and political circumstances. The poem mentions a funeral procession in which the participants “move politely aside” so the harvest can pass, and “a peasant/ with hands bound behind him” in Panchimalco, a town in southern El Salvador. Few metaphors are used in favor of the poet’s concrete language, although the metaphors that are employed are vivid. El Salvador is a “queen ant,” and an airplane is “a huge bee.” The poem personifies several objects, including the volcano Izalco, which “sleeps” in central El Salvador, and coffee that “dances in the millhouse” where they “strip her,/ rape her, lay her out . . ./ to doze in the sun.” These figures of speech convey a direct and frank impression of El Salvador.