The Spanish Civil War
During the First World War (1914–1918), Spain underwent the difficult transition from a farm-based economy to an industrial one. The rise of industry brought with it a working class, centered in the cities, which struggled against the traditional monarchy. In 1922, to retain control of the country, King Alfonso XIII asked a general of the army, Miguel Primo de Rivera, to take control of the government and run it as a military dictatorship. He ruled as dictator until 1925 and then as Prime Minister until the revolution of 1931 when Alfonso left the throne and went into exile and a new government was formed by a coalition of left-wing groups. This ruling group, the Republicans, included Liberals, Socialists, and Anarchists. They ruled the country from 1931 until 1936 but not well. Poverty and violence were everywhere. In 1933, a new political party, the Falange, rose in opposition to the government. Led by Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the son of the former dictator, the Falange was a Fascist group that followed the policies Benito Mussolini was using to control Italy.
With the public frustrated because of the many reforms that the Republicans had instituted in their five years in office and the Falange party pressing with serious political opposition, there came a third threat: the military, led by Francisco Franco, planned a revolution that would restore King Alfonso to power.
To suppress the rebellion, the Republican government arrested and killed a leading Falangist party member in 1936, charging him with the death of a policeman. The public outrage over this act led the Nationalists, which included the army and the Falange party, to call for revolution. Further government acts of suppression ensued, followed by further acts of rebellion. By the end of the year and for the two years that followed, Spain was a chaotic and bloody mess, with the Republican and Nationalist parties struggling for control and loyalists of each side murdering the other side’s supporters whenever the chance arose. Many countries...
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“Blood Oranges” is written in free verse. There is no strict rhythmic pattern or rhyming scheme that would assert the author’s control and make readers feel that the ideas presented here are organized by a controlling hand. This lack of structure fits with what the poem is saying: it is critical of poetry that is too intellectual, aspiring to be “lighter than air,” and it would be hypocritical of this poem to depend too heavily on poetic technique, which would draw more attention to the poem itself than to the dire political situation it addresses. The lack of formal rules used here is appropriate for presenting a world in disorder, where a great, talented man like García Lorca can be murdered by thugs with no consequence.
The poem is only one stanza, but it is divided by subject matter into three parts. In the first, the speaker gives a general overview about how little she knew about events in Spain when she was a child in 1936. She did not know about the murder of García Lorca, and she thought that Franco was a hero. The second section of the poem concerns an in-depth description of how important the oranges she received for Christmas were to the girl, focusing on them with a clarity that contrasts to the vagueness of her grasp of Spanish affairs. In the third section, she describes the kind of poetry that she read in those days. This section contrasts with the section before by showing how much...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1936: Political systems gain and hold on to power by exterminating great masses of people. Soviet Russia begins purges that kill eight to ten million citizens in two years. Nazi Germany kills nearly as many during the Holocaust. A million die during the Spanish Civil War. Today: International peace-keeping forces from the United Nations often intercede in abusive regimes.
- 1936: Hitler’s secret police force, the Gestapo, takes over the regular German police force to spy on citizens more easily. 1986: West Germany and East Germany are still divided, with East Germany aligned with the Soviet Union. Today: Having been reunited in 1990 as the Soviet Union collapsed, the Federal Republic of Germany is one of the most influential European nations.
- 1936: The Great Depression that has affected the United States through much of the 1930s is just as devastating to the rest of the world, leading people to support dictatorships as drastic measures for relief. 1986: The United States economy is in a recession, in large part because of unbridled government spending: the national debt doubles from 1981 to 1986, from one billion to two. Today: Because of the economic boom from the computer revolution, the U.S. government finally has a budget surplus.
- 1936: Fruits grown in tropical regions very rarely make it to northern markets and then only at a great...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the history of the tango and why this dance and musical style is associated with Spain’s Andalusia region.
Read interviews with Germans who remained in Germany throughout the Hitler years. Describe what daily life was like. What did Hitler’s supporters say in his defense?
Francisco Franco ruled Spain for almost forty years, until 1975. Find other poems that condemn him and his reign.
Blood oranges derive their name from the dark red color they have on the inside. Find another fruit or vegetable that is called by a compelling title, and write a poem that makes use of that name.
Explore the tradition of giving fruit for Christmas: where the tradition came from, how long it has been around, and in what form it exists today.
This poem points out the shallowness of reading about peace and safety while terrible things are going on in the world. Do you think that poets who write about pleasant things are being ignorant to reality? What is the responsibility of poets to keep up with world politics? What is the responsibility of readers?
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A tape of Lisel Mueller reading her poetry in 1979 is available from the Poetry Center collection. Contact them at http://www.sfsu.edu/ ~newlit/newcatalog/916.htm (last accessed April 2001) to purchase a copy.
Another audio recording of Mueller reading was recorded by New Letters Magazine at the University of Missouri in 1981.
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What Do I Read Next?
Mueller won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1996 collection Alive Together: New and Selected Poems, which represents works selected from the previous thirty-five years.
Mueller’s work as a translator throws an interesting light on her particular interests. The Selected Later Poems of Marie Luise Kaschnitz, published by Princeton University Press in 1980, represents a rare opportunity to read Kaschnitz in English.
Paulette Roeske is a friend and former student of Mueller. Roeske’s newest poetry collection, Anvil, Clock & Last, is scheduled to be published in 2001.
The poems that the speaker of “Blood Oranges” admired are available in both English and Spanish in...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Fulton, Alice, “Main Things,” in Poetry, Vol. CLI, No. 4, January 1988, pp. 366–77.
Muratori, Fred, “Second Language,” in Library Journal, Vol. 111, No. 15, September 15, 1986, p. 90.
Parisi, Joseph, “Second Language: Poems,” in Booklist, Vol. 83, No. 9. January 1, 1987, p. 679.
Stitt, Peter, “The Whirlpool of Image and Narrative Flow,” in Georgia Review, Vol. XLI, No. 1, Spring 1987, pp. 192–208.
Tanner, Lindsey, “Pulitzer for Poetry Ends In Obscurity,” in New Standard, http://www.s-t.com/daily/05-97/05-04- 97/e06ae235.htm (January 17, 2001).
Taylor, John, “Alive Together: New and Selected...
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