by Rita Dove
Part 1, Stanzas 1 & 2 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Before we dive into this highly political poem, check out our introduction, which will give you some background on the real-life events depicted here. Be sure to come right back, though!
Stanza 1: Lines 1-3
There is a parrot imitating spring
in the palace, its feathers parsley green.
Out of the swamp the cane appears
- Hello, pretty bird. What are you doing in this poem? Well, the parrot's "imitating spring." Also, the bird's in a palace, so it's either perched there or is a pet. We're not sure yet, but we do know that we're in a place of wealth.
- But to get back to that first line – how does something "imitate spring"? The second half of the second line gives us a clue, what with the parrot's feathers being "parsley green." Spring is often associated with the color green, right? So the parrot is fresh and green, just like spring.
- But then comes line 3. We've moved! Where are we? Apparently we're in a swamp" and "cane" – sugarcane – is appearing from out of this swamp.
- This makes some sense – while sugarcane isn't grown in water, like rice, it must be grown in extremely wet, tropical climates. So we're somewhere tropical. We might not know exactly where if not for Dove's note, which explains that we're in the Dominican Republic. And the Dominican Republic is, in fact, tropical.
- So we have a parrot in a palace, and some sugarcane – these two images immediately set up a tension in the poem, since a palace and a pet parrot signify great wealth, while sugarcane is typically worked by extremely poor, migrant workers. So the class struggle begins right off the bat, here.
Stanza 2: Lines 4-6
to haunt us, and we cut it down. El General
searches for a word; he is all the world
there is. Like a parrot imitating spring,
- Uh oh. Haunting. Who is being haunted? Dove sets up an "us" here – that, combined with the words "we cut it down," tell us that the speaker(s) of the poem at this point are the sugarcane workers. From Dove's note we know that these are Haitian migrant workers.
- Manual labor is no joke – hence, the verb "haunt." The sugarcane, in this case, is a political oppressor.
- How so? Well, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, Trujillo ("El General"), owned acres upon acres of sugar plantation and, even now, the conditions of workers in many sugarcane fields is awful at best. Child labor, substandard pay, illegal hours, and overt prejudice are still prevalent in the industry. One can only imagine what it would have been like in the early twentieth century, under the rule of a nearly-mad military dictator. "Haunt" indeed.
- Enter Trujillo, stage right. Being a military dictator, he was commonly known as "El General" (the General).
- What's he doing? He's "search[ing] for a word; he is all the world." Given Dove's note, we know where this is headed (check out our intro for more) – but what about that second part? How can someone be "all the world"?
- By being a dictator, that's how! To the migrant workers under his control, Trujillo may as well have been the rising and setting sun. He ruled with a bloody and iron fist, and disobeying him (or, as we'll see, doing nothing at all) could earn you the death penalty. When you live in fear like that, one man can indeed be "all the world."
- Wait a minute. The last line of this stanza looks awfully familiar. In fact, it looks almost exactly like the first line of the poem. What's up with that?
- What's up with that is this: the poem is a loose (i.e. unrhymed) villanelle. It's a form that has two lines of refrain, or repeated lines. You'll see them crop up here again in a minute. If you're curious right now, head over to the "Rhyme, Form, and Meter" section to read more, but be sure to come right back!
- Now, Dove has changed the line by one word – instead of "there is" a parrot imitating spring, now we have "like" a parrot imitating spring. This means she's going to set up a comparison. But to what?