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by Rita Dove

Part 2, Stanza 13 Summary

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

Stanza 13

calls out his name in a voice
so like his mother's, a startled tear
splashes the tip of his right boot.
My mother, my love in death.
The general remembers the tiny green sprigs
men of his village wore in their capes
to honor the birth of a son. He will
order many, this time, to be killed
for a single, beautiful word.

  • The tail end of the previous stanza and the beginning of this one give us a rather startling image. Trujillo, who is about to order the deaths of 20,000 people, sheds a tear for his mother. The boot comes back – it had been covered in blood and urine. Now it has a tear on it.
  • The fourth line here, as we're sure you can see, is a translation of the Spanish from the previous stanza.
  • Finally, we see perhaps where the general's choice of the word "parsley" comes from – apparently, he can remember from his childhood that men put parsley sprigs on their lapels when they fathered a son.
  • This ties back to the fact that Trujillo is a son, that he has lost his mother, that the image of parsley, for him, can only symbolize death, even as it symbolizes birth in his memory.
  • Thus, his final order – "many, this time, to be killed / for a single, beautiful word."
  • The second to last word of this whole, large poem is "beautiful." This is no coincidence. "Beautiful," in this poem, is the parrot, is spring, and is the "singing" of the artillery. It's language itself – a beautiful thing, our languages, and in this case, utterly deadly.
  • Death thus becomes arbitrary at the end (not that it wasn't before). The explicitness of the poem's saying "these people will die for a word" could not be more clear, and the full force of the atrocity lies in that clarity.
  • So, the second half of this poem sets up a dictator who has been entirely wrenched by his mother's death, to the point where no other death matters. For him, death even becomes a reprieve from his own grief. The more he can kill, the better. The more arbitrary it is, the better – for him, all death is arbitrary, and hatred comes astonishingly cheap. Cheap as a sprig of parsley.

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