by Rita Dove
Part 2, Stanzas 9 & 10 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Stanza 9: Lines 34-41
all the way from Australia in an ivory
cage, is, coy as a widow, practicing
spring. Ever since the morning
his mother collapsed in the kitchen
while baking skull-shaped candies
for the Day of the Dead, the general
has hated sweets. He orders pastries
brought up for the bird; they arrive
- Moving from the end of the last stanza into this one, we learn that the parrot has traveled from Australia in an ivory (read: expensive; ivory was incredibly precious, even back in 1937) cage, to be a pet at Trujillo's palace.
- So what's the parrot doing? It's being "coy as a widow, practicing / spring." A few things about this line. First, hey! It's that parrot = spring thing again! And how is a parrot in any way like a widow? And what's "coy" anyway?
- Well, to be "coy" means to be deliberately act shy or modest. You have to try to be coy, otherwise you're just shy. So what's up with being "coy as a widow"?
- Let's look at it this way – widows are women whose husbands have died. How would they be coy? Perhaps unwilling to meet other men. Or maybe feeling as though they have to act the part of grief by being overly reserved. What do you think?
- And then how is a parrot like a widow? The parrot, whether or not it likes it, is so intertwined with death in this poem that this isn't quite as bizarre as it may seem out of context (and why take things out of context? That's not helpful). So the parrot's laden with death, but it affects life – i.e., it acts like spring (or "practices" it).
- That's one way of looking at it, at least.
- The rest of the stanza is backstory (though Dove admitted that she made this up – we have no record of how Trujillo's mother died). Trujillo's mother, we are told, collapses in the kitchen while making skull-shaped candies for the Day of the Dead.
- The Day of the Dead, by the way, is a Latin American holiday that falls right around our Halloween – so late October or early November. (See "Best of the Web" for more on the holiday.)
- So the skulls are doing double-duty here – they're a cultural signifier, and they're also symbolic of the atrocities that Trujillo commits during his dictatorship.
- Trujillo now hates the candies that remind him of his mother's death – but he feeds them to his parrot anyway. Perhaps this is a small revenge in the form of an indulgence. It's tough to tell. He is an intensely complicated character, in only a few stanzas.
Stanza 10: Lines 42-49
dusted with sugar on a bed of lace.
The knot in his throat starts to twitch;
he sees his boots the first day in battle
splashed with blood and urine
as a soldier falls at his feet amazed—
how stupid he looked!—at the sound
of artillery. I never thought it would sing
the soldier said, and died. Now
- So the pastries (from the previous stanza) come up for the parrot, and they're presented rather richly – "dusted with sugar on a bed of lace." Again, symbolism of the wealthy – the sugarcane workers can barely afford to eat, while Trujillo is feeding his pet parrots pastries covered in sugar on what might literally be a silver platter.
- But something is wrong. The "knot" – which, in stanza 8, is a "knot of screams" – has become "a knot in [Trujillo's] throat." We can probably assume that this is the same thing. So the rage that has been calmed previously is welling up again.
- What's causing this? We're not entirely sure. (Something to ponder! Check out our study questions.)
- His returning anger takes him back to his first day out on the battlefield, to a gruesome image of a falling soldier. It's probably safe to say that Trujillo killed that soldier.
- The image of the soldier does almost triple duty – it gives us this awful image of a man bleeding out at Trujillo's feet, it showcases Trujillo's nearly inhuman nature ("how stupid he looked!"), and it brings back the idea of beauty turning up in the most horrible places (he says, of the artillery of all things, "I never thought it would sing").
- Thus the violence in this stanza ties itself back to the parrot – a bird, after all, that also sings. What is the weaponry here? The artillery or the divide between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless? It's all there.