The Elements of San Joaquin

by Gary Soto
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473

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.

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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 “sprouts nothing/ For any of us.” The perspective has now widened to include all those who work this land. For them, there is no sustenance to be wrought from the land that they work.

The third section, “Wind,” deals with the power of this natural force. The poem presents a human figure waking in the morning beneath a blazing sun. The sky darkens, and a cold wind begins “moving under your skin and already far/ From the small hives of your lungs.” Once more, nature is a destructive force. It can burrow under the skin, but it will not bring its life-giving breath to the lungs that need it.

The last section of the poem, “Daybreak,” portrays the workers entering an onion field at dawn. They are contrasted to the distant consumer who will literally feed on their labor: “And tears the onions raise/ Do not begin in your eyes but ours,” the poet notes. The consumers will not know or see that other world, but the laborers “won’t forget what you failed to see,/ And nothing will heal/ Under the rain’s broken fingers.” The rain does not give life but only shatters those who are vulnerable to its power. The poem ends with an image of rain that first suggests a flourishing world and then denies it. Soto’s poems are rooted in actual experience and not in transcendence.

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