Word Usage in “The Boxes”
Words are the building blocks of language. In every work of literature, the author carefully selects his or her words to broaden the meaning of the work and to control the tone. At first glance, the reader may have difficulty in realizing the importance of such thorough selection of words, but with a closer examination, the reader can find that many words have a deeper meaning than what meets the eye. In “The Boxes,” Shelly Wagner thoroughly capitalizes on word usage to maximize the poem's effect on its readers, changing from a tone of panic to a feeling of sorrow. Wagner's use of the words box, hump, and lie all intensify the poem's impact on its reader.
In lines 1 through 7, a mother recounts how the police search everywhere in the house to find her missing son, even the boxes. At first, the reader does not realize the overall importance of this word to the poem. The reader assumes that the boy is only missing and that the police are only taking the precautionary measures in finding him. As the poem continues, the reader discovers that the boy is not just missing, but that he has died. In lines 43 and 44, the author again makes reference to the box when the mother says for her child to “get out of this box,” implying that her son is in a coffin. A box is defined as a container that is typically square or rectangular and has a lid. It also can be defined as a difficult situation or predicament. The boxes first mentioned in the poem are described by the first definition because the boxes searched were footlockers, hampers, or trunks, all of which are containers that have a lid. The poet may have chosen this word rather than receptacle, container, or crate because box has one definition that the others do not have, the definition of a box as a difficult situation or predicament. This further adds to the meaning of the poem because this is such a difficult time for the mother and family of the boy. They are in a very difficult situation, especially when they have to bury the child in the box. This sets up irony in the poem because in line 8 the mother says that her son “would never stay in a box." In line 43, however, the mother says "get out of this box," which is ironic because the mother says her son would never stay in a box, but in the end, that is exactly where he remains.
In line 42, the poet makes use of the word hump very effectively. It is clear that the mother is overcome with grief as she has the urge to hug the hump of ground where her son had been buried. A hump is defined as a rounded raised mass of earth or land or as the carrying of a heavy object with difficulty. It is obvious that the hump of earth that she wants to hug is where her son has been buried. The less obvious meaning is the fact that she is carrying a heavy object with difficulty, the grief from her son's death. A common expression is “over the hump.” This means to be over the worst or most difficult part of something. The mother was not “over the hump.” This is shown when she says she has the urge to lie down on the grass next to the hump. She is at the level of the hump, showing that she has not overcome her problems. Because of this second meaning, the poet does not choose the synonyms such as protuberance or bulge. They do not contain this double meaning. The use of these words would deduct from the impact of the poem.
In line 41, the mother says she has the urge to “lie down on the grass.” Lie can have many meanings. It can mean to assume a horizontal position or be buried in a particular place. In the noun form, a lie is something serving to convey a mistaken impression. The initial purpose of the word in the poem is to show the mother assuming a horizontal position next to her son's grave. Because the poem deals with the death of a young boy, lie can be interpreted to mean “buried in a particular place.” Also, the word can be used to show how the mother wishes that the death of her son is a mistaken fact. If the poet would have said that the mother has the urge to rest or recline on the grass, the poem would be less solemn because it would only include the first definition of assuming a horizontal position and would take away from the poet's underlying message.
The poet's interpretation of these words seems to expand the meaning of the poem and its portrayal of panic and sorrow. Any other synonyms would lessen the impact that the poem has on its readers. Through denotation and connotation, the poet controls the tone of the poem. Although the words and their synonyms may have the same definitions, the words she chose reveal so much more, which makes this poem very heartbreaking for all of its readers.
Wagner, Shelly. “The Boxes.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 9th ed.
Ed. Edgar V. Roberts. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009. 1185-1186. Print.