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by Rita Dove

Part 1, Stanzas 3 & 4 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Stanza 3: Lines 7-9

we lie down screaming as rain punches through
and we come up green. We cannot speak an R–
out of the swamp, the cane appears

  • Like a parrot, "we lie down screaming"? What is that all about?
  • Well, parrots can in fact make some noises that sound eerily like screaming. So this isn't that far-fetched. But what about the lying down bit? Maybe hiding from the lashing rain, which Dove describes as something that "punches."
  • These are violent verbs we have suddenly. There's a feeling of death in the air, with this punching and screaming and lying down.
  • And then line 8: "we come up green." What could this be doing? How can a come up green?
  • Well, when we die, we decompose. What happens after we decompose? That's right – we're dirt. And then things grow through us, and we come up green.
  • In a way, this is harrowingly hopeful. We'll come back, and green, and full of life again. It's still horrible, but it's a strange horror, to be sure.
  • The narrator(s) then give it to us straight regarding the workers' deaths – "we cannot speak an R." Because of Dove's preface, we know that this is why the Haitians were killed (because they couldn't pronounce the "r" in the word for "parsley"). They haven't been killed yet, in the poem, because the General is still deciding on a word. But we know it's coming.
  • And then Dove pulls us around again, repeating line 3. We wait for the inevitable, what we know is going to happen in those cane fields, and move on to the next stanza.

Stanza 4: Lines 10-12

and then the mountains we call in whispers Katalina.
The children gnaw their teeth to arrowheads.
There is a parrot imitating spring.

  • Oh, another landscape – this time not sugarcane, but mountains.
  • We also get a name, which ought to be "Katarina," but since the Haitian speakers cannot pronounce the "r" becomes "Katalina." This is yet another word that might well have gotten them killed, had Trujillo not chosen "perejil" (parsley) as the shibboleth.
  • Brain snack time: "Shibboleth" is a Hebrew word that means a lot of super specific stuff about grains (source). But these days, people use it to mean "a word or way of speaking or behaving which shows that a person belongs to a particular group" (thanks, Merriam Webster!). That meaning comes from a Biblical story in which two groups of people are distinguished from each other based on the way they said the word. Neat-o.
  • So they're calling to the mountains. Presumably, the workers cannot get to them, because they are trapped in the fields. So this line has a wispy, wistful, ghost-like feel to it.
  • Then we have children "gnaw[ing] their teeth to arrowheads." What's that all about?
  • Think back to a time when you were extremely nervous, scared, or angry – did you clench your teeth? Grind them, perhaps? It's possible that that's what's happening here. Anger or utter grief is causing the children – whose parents may well be slain before them – to clench their teeth, turning them into a kind of bizarre weaponry, hence the "arrowheads."
  • We're pretty sure that this isn't meant to be taken literally – the children aren't really filing their own teeth down to points. But it sure is intense, which we think is what Dove is after, and is certainly the effect of this line.
  • And then, refrain time again – we're back to the parrot. The parrot now is oddly peaceful. It's yet another way of offsetting the to-be-massacred people from the ones doing the massacring – there's a serenity about the parrot, and therefore about Trujillo, that's truly frightening.

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