Cervantes has created many images in her poem ‘‘Freeway 280.’’ Reading her poem is almost like watching a slide show or thumbing through the pages of an old photograph album. In using the vivid images, the poet invites readers into her poem through their sense of sight. These images are, however, much more than snapshots. By examining the images and reflecting on the effects they produce, readers gain insights into the deeper meaning of the poem. This is how the images are transformed into symbols.
In the first stanza, Cervantes begins by offering a pleasant image of a potentially quiet and somewhat typical neighborhood—a cluster of small, probably older houses. The houses could be cottages that once belonged to a small town, and then as time went by a larger city grew up around the neighborhood. The first impression this image offers is that of a cozy, picturesque neighborhood. The small houses are graced with flowers, such as climbing roses that hug the outer walls of the homes. Also softening the edges of the houses are huge geraniums, which are tall and most likely covered in brightly colored blossoms. However, the poet does not linger long on this peaceful image. As soon as the speaker has painted this tranquil image in the reader’s mind, she changes it in two ways.
The first portion of the image’s transformation takes place when the speaker mentions a cannery that exists near this neighborhood. This creates a contrast between the brightly flowered homes and this other, industrial part of the town. The cannery is colored in a gray hue, which hints at the negative aspect of this business. Also, whereas the houses surrounded by cultivated flowers suggest family life and pleasant pastimes spent in the garden, the cannery suggests work. Work in a cannery is typically filled with drudgery. Workers often receive poor wages, stand all day in assembly line work stations, and are often bored with the monotony of their jobs. The nearness of the cannery to the neighborhood also indicates that the overall environment around the neighborhood is, more than likely, not very healthy. If the houses are located near an industrial area, the air is probably more polluted than areas farther away. This signifies that the neighborhood that is described in this poem is probably located in a part of town that is undesirable.
Next, the author adds another element to the images of the neighborhood she is describing. The new elements also drastically transform this portion of town from tranquil settings full of family life to something much less inviting. The speaker abruptly informs the reader that the neighborhood she has described no longer exists. It has been wiped out. With this piece of information, the tension in the poem rises. There is no more need to question if the poet meant to create a tranquil neighborhood scene or one that only appears peaceful on the surface. It no longer makes a difference if the cannery is located nearby, polluting the air with its commercial exhaust and dulling the employees’s minds with boredom and low pay. The focus now is on the fact that the neighborhood and the cannery are gone. Now the readers’s attention turns to the question of what happened to them and what has taken their place.
Whereas the first stanza began with images that suggest a possibly vibrant life, the stanza ends with no life at all. The final impression of the first stanza is not of family life or of a thriving urban neighborhood but rather of a sense of destruction, abandonment, or even worse. The image in the last line of the first stanza completely negates the images in the beginning of the poem. Where there was life in the beginning, there is only a wound at the end. The quiet, flower-strewn neighborhood is not just gone, it is buried, covered over by concrete roads that remind the speaker of a scar, the puffy, dried skin that forms over a puncture or a scrape on a person’s body after a battle. At the mention of a scar, readers might also envision that some kind of battle might have taken place. This symbol of a scar further undermines the sense of tranquility that was present in the beginning of the first stanza.
In the second stanza, the same pattern of images exists. In the first stanza, the images changed from tranquility to a kind of barren emptiness. In the second stanza, the images change in reverse order, from the dispiriting to the nourishing. The speaker’s tone, when she creates the image of the freeway in the second stanza, is not positive. First, there are the sounds of the traffic whipping by. This is followed by the image of not just vacant or open lots but lots that have been discarded. There once was life or beauty on these lots, the speaker suggests, but that life no longer exists. The effects of these images might conjure up sadness; life has been taken away from the land that remains behind. The scene has changed but not for the better. Where once the land was picturesque, now it is polluted by huge man-made concrete structures that have all but buried the land that once supported a neighborhood.
However, in the remaining lines of the second stanza, the speaker suggests hope. Hope is symbolized by the image of the wild plants that not only continue to grow but have become even stronger than they were before. In contrast, the cultivated roses and geraniums have died off. The people who once pulled the wild plants out by their roots because they were considered weeds in a cultivated garden no longer remain. The field now belongs to the weeds, and they are thriving. The women who come to the abandoned lots are therefore also thriving. They come to pick the so-called weeds because the women know the nutritious qualities of the wild plants. So this stanza develops from the negative image of abandonment and death to the more lively sense of nourishment.
In the third stanza, the images the speaker offers are more like a short video than static snapshots. The speaker is climbing over a fence in the first lines of this stanza. She tells readers that she is struggling to get into a place that she has previously tried to escape. At another time in her life, the freeway represented freedom. The road would, she imagined, lead her to a better place. She was tired of the environment in which she lived. She wanted the opposite of the oppressive heat and the odors of her neighborhood. Since the speaker was so accustomed to wanting to get away from this area, she is surprised to feel excitement as she sneaks back over the fence that is there to bar her access to the land that once held her. She is conquering an obstacle, but in the opposite direction than the one she remembers from her youth. Instead of running away, she now wants back in. In this stanza, the speaker accomplishes this feat. She is back on the land under the freeway.
The fourth and last stanza explains in mixed images why the speaker has fought her way to this point. There is a sense of hope both at the beginning and at the end of the stanza. However, this sense of hope is corrupted. First, the speaker hopes she will find something she has lost here, in this strange city of concrete columns and weeds that was once her home. The something she is looking for is a part of her, the speaker says. Then she provides a negative or dismal image. She fears that this lost part of her has been cut down, possibly destroyed, just as the roses and geraniums were mutilated and the houses were ruined. She also suggests that this part of her that she is looking for might even be dead. But before the poem ends, the speaker returns to her former sense of hope. There is a chance, she suggests, that she will find a seed, something that contains all the knowledge or all the basic elements needed to re-grow that missing part of her. She has hope that she will discover something about herself that has grown stronger and will help nourish her, just like the wild plants that have grown stronger and now nourish the old women who come back to this all-but-forgotten plot of land under the freeway. As the old women claim the purslane, the wild spinach, and the mint and then place them in their bags and carry them home, so too does the speaker want to take the missing part of her home.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009
Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on ‘‘Freeway 280,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.