“Blood Oranges” comes from Second Language, Lisel Mueller’s fourth book of poetry. In this poem, one sees subjects that have interested Mueller throughout her career, most notably the Holocaust in Hitler’s Germany and her fascination with poetry’s way of capturing the physical world so concretely that reality’s horrors cannot be ignored.
An interesting aspect of this poem is that it presents Nazi Germany, from which Mueller’s family fled when she was young, as a sort of safe haven, a place where a child could live comfortably in ignorance of the brutality around her. The abusive political system that Mueller looks back on here is that of Spain in 1936, where, on August 19, the famed poet and playwright Federico García Lorca was executed by Fascist rebels. García Lorca was internationally famous for his sympathetic writings about the poor common people of Spain, especially the Andalusian gypsies.
“Blood Oranges” describes Mueller as a child, living in Germany and reading acceptably pleasant German poetry from long in the past, oblivious to the Spanish political situation and unaware of the sheer greatness of the poet who was being murdered at the same time. There is a painful irony in the fact that, as García Lorca was being killed, the young girl was savoring the sweetness of oranges from Spain that are called “blood oranges.” Modern readers are able to add to this scene another layer, with the knowledge that the Fascist rebels in the Spanish Civil War were supported by Adolph Hitler and that Hitler would in a short time wield similar control over Germany, encouraging mob action against Jews and blacks, homosexuals and gypsies.
Assuming that the speaker of this poem is to be identified with Mueller, the child that is de- scribed here would be about twelve. It is not always the case that a poem’s main character is based on the author, even when the poem speaks as “I,” but in this case there is enough in common between the two (such as similar age and German background) to assume that Mueller is actually speaking about herself. These opening lines present an unsettling dramatic contrast in their use of the phrase “a child in Hitler’s Germany.” Childhood is often thought of as a time of innocence, and yet the world has come to see Adolph Hitler as the embodiment of evil due to the widespread slaughter of innocents that went on during the years that he ruled Germany, 1933–1945. The two phrases contained in these first two lines, separated by a comma, never actually work into a sentence in the proper grammatical way: instead of their dovetailing into the third line, it picks up a new idea, giving the impression that each phrase is an aborted start, as if the speaker is looking for a way to talk about this subject and each time changes her mind.
It is not unusual for a child to be unaware of complex international affairs, especially when, like the Spanish Civil War, there is no clear international consensus about how to react to what is happening. The party in power at the time was the one supported by the majority of the people, but under their rule there was anarchy, and the Spanish government was barely able to function. The Falange party that challenged them was brutal and emulated Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, but at the time Fascism was considered by some to be a reasonable response to anarchy. It is only in the years since those turbulent times that the world has come to doubt, in retrospect, whether the loss of personal freedom under the Nazis, the Fascists, or the Falange was a reasonable price to pay for civil peace. To this day, children tend to repeat the popular sentiments they hear about political issues if society has a fairly unified approach, as seen in America’s united opposition to Bosnia’s president Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s. If popular opinion is divided, though, and the issue is too complex, people tend to block it out, as this poem’s speaker has done.
Andolusia is the region of southern Spain where Federico García Lorca grew up and where he was killed when he returned at the age of thirtyeight. It was a poor area that was considered to have a rustic charm especially in its tradition of tango dancing, but its culture was not taken seriously until García Lorca wrote about it. The reference to a “wind-up gramophone” indicates that Mueller’s childhood home did not have electricity, but it is also a sensual image, invoking the particular sound of a machine that played records at an uneven pace from start to finish. This sensation is unforgettable and is not reproduced in the modern mechanical world. The reference to Franco is, of course, ironic: he was supported by Hitler and would have been treated like a hero by the newspaper in the state that Hitler controlled, even though the world has come to see both men as cruel dictators, responsible for millions of deaths and untold human suffering.
The fact that García Lorca was not mentioned in Mueller’s youth is an indication of the relationship that the arts have with politics in general. Having just mentioned the lie that did reach her in Germany, that of Franco’s heroism, the poem brings out the ironic contrast of a ruthless dictator living a life of privilege and a truly heroic man dying in obscurity. There is a subtle but potent testimony to the power and clarity of García Lorca’s writing in the way that line 8 speaks in the past tense, implying that the poet feels she would, even as a youth, have been moved by the work that later moved her deeply when she did...
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