On “Element” by Atsuro Riley

Click here to read the poem.

“Element”, by Atsuro Riley is a story that has not yet been put into context by the poet. It is a poem that tells a story in which you have to interpret on your own, re-read to break down and it is a poem that leaves you with many questions that you have to answer, like how cottonmouths represent how the poem takes place in the south.

In this poem, the boys are looking for a new home and a better life. Atsuro Riley says, “What did feel once we crossed?”, they mention that the scenery around them changed but also maybe they felt a sense of freedom, as they left their old homes. This new territory, which is occupied by a man named Johnny Pep, is a place that almost seems like the boys were looking for. They knew when they entered his property and more importantly they knew who Johnny Pep was. Possibly they knew him before the war or they were told to find him. Furthermore, the boys are leaving their homes for a better life with Johnny Pep.

Another Atsuro Riley uses abstract wording in this poem that you will need to research to fully understand the story and meaning of the poem. First, Johnny Pep, calls the kids strawboys which states that they are boys and that they are working for him. This also means that he is taking care of the boys as long as they do their part of working for him. The narrator mentions multiple times that “Johnny Pep was shrapped home from war”, meaning he was discharged from the war and left poor and homeless. Besides the mentioning of cottonmouths, this wording that Atsuro uses, like “ya’ll” and other words that are “southern slang”, is a true give away that this takes place in southern United States, probably Texas or Florida. Not only do these words set up an image or setting but it adds a great feeling to the poem of being with the characters and actually interacting with Johnny Pep.

Although this poem is a story it also has some metaphors of how Johnny Pep raises the boys. Atsuro mentions that the boys first saw Johnny “branch-dragging agglomerating discards and disjecta.” Obviously he was carrying and collecting old limbs and branches, but also the discards and disjecta are the boys that he is about to also bring back to his home. The boys are branches that have fallen or run away from their original homes. The most important part of the poem is the last sentence, “Something like ‘When Johnny Pep hitched home from war we took to carving (curing) scraplings into shapes.’” Johnny Pep took these scaplings of boys and has turned them into a statue. Furthermore, he is raising the boys, teaching them and shaping them into men.

I was able to answer many of my questions, but I was still puzzled by some things that Atsuro Riley put into the poem. For example, what was is Johnny Pep so scarred from? When does this take place? Was this based of a real war and a possible scenario or is it fictional and made up? These questions being left unanswered is what makes “Element” such an interesting and great poem.


When I first read this poem I did not understand much of it. I wanted to completely break down the poem and understand it. I did do this and then I was interested in who was Johnny Pep and why were the boys going to find him and live with him.I first read the poem a few times and broke it down into my own words in bullet notes. Then I looked at the words I didn’t know and googled some words and asked other people for help. I learned that Atsuro Riley enjoys using a slang type of writing. I also figured out that if I just break down the poem into my own words then I can further understand it. A conclusion is a great way to sum up everything that you learned and put into your writing. It leaves the reader with the true point that you were trying to prove in you writing.

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