‘Giuseppe’ by Roderick Ford is a six stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. It is written in free verse, meaning that there is no pattern of rhyme or rhythm. This does not mean that the poem is without unity or form though. Ford makes use of a number of different techniques in ‘Giuseppe’ that contribute to the overall tone and mood.
The poem begins with the speaker setting the scene. There was a group of people in Sicily and in their desperate starved state they butchered a mermaid behind the aquarium. At first, they thought that she was simply a fish and there would be no issue killing her. This was mostly due to the fact that she had never learned to speak.
They kill her, and she screams as a woman would scream. This is the first moment they doubt their own actions. All this information comes from a story his uncle used to tell the speaker. He is getting it second hand.
As the poem progresses their argument that she was simply a fish gets harder and harder to maintain. She has eggs, but no one will eat them as they seem more like babies than anything else. They bury her head and hands and do not take her “wedding ring.”
Eventually, they feed the troops with the rest of her body and tell everyone the meat came from a big fish they found. By the end of the poem it is clear that the uncle felt guilty over the death of this woman, but (mostly) excuses the men’s actions because they were starving.
You can read the full poem here.
In the text, there are examples of enjambment, alliteration, and simile. Enjambment is one of the most common poetic techniques employed by writers. It is used in order to increase the drama of action, force a reader to move quickly from one line to the next, or change the overall speed of the words. In ‘Giuseppe” Ford uses enjambment a number of times, one particularly interesting moment is noted in the text of the analysis.
Alliteration is another common technique and can be seen when a number of words begin with the same letter. They can come in succession or just be within the same line or lines. One example is in the last two lines of the first stanza in which three words beginning with “d” appear near one another.
There is only one instance of simile in the entire poem and it is a dramatic one. At the end of stanza two, the speaker states that the woman “screamed like a woman in terrible fear.” This is the first time that it is revealed that the murder the characters are engaged in is going to be more complicated than they thought.
Analysis of Giuseppe
My Uncle Giuseppe told me
that in Sicily in World War Two,
was butchered on the dry and dusty ground
by a doctor, a fishmonger, and certain others.
In the first stanza of ‘Guiseppe’, the speaker takes the reader into a strange, magical, and striking story told to him by his uncle. He is retelling events seen and experienced by his uncle in Siciliy in World War Two. The first five lines of the stanza are important details that lead up to the sixth and seventh which give the main action the rest of the poem is based around. It is not until this line that one becomes aware of what happened “in the courtyard behind the aquarium.” The speaker explains that years ago,
the only captive mermaid in the world
was butchered on the dry and dusty ground
After reading this line the speaker immediately becomes aware that the text is going to use techniques of magic realism, in which the real world is expanded on with strange and magical elements.
It was important to the speaker’s uncle too when telling the story, leading up to the main brutal action. These initial details speak on the kinds of flowers (“bougainvillea”) that grow there and the “dry and dusty ground” on which the mermaid died. Additionally, there is the fact that the reader is aware that the events occurred in Italy, more precisely Sicily. It is easier to envision the surrounding buildings. These elements of the first five lines set the scene for the slaughter of the mermaid and help one imagine what it was really like there.
She, it, had never learned to speak
because she was simple, or so they’d said,
said she was only a fish, and fish can’t speak.
But she screamed like a woman in terrible fear.
In the second stanza of ‘Giuseppe’, the speaker gives a few more details, relayed to him by his grandfather. Her death was brutal and made to seem even more so by the information provided about her. The mermaid, who the speaker refers to as “She” and “it” was unable to speak. She had never learned, or more likely, no one had ever taught her.
Those who saw her believed that “she was simple.” The speaker adds onto this line, that he, or perhaps the grandfather, was not convinced by this. Others said she was simple. This perception made it all the easier for the “the priest” and “certain others,” as mentioned in the first stanza, to hold her down while ”her throat was cut.”
There was a terrible realization at this point. The people participating in the murder were sure that the mermaid was “only a fish.” The fact that she couldn’t speak supported this theory as “fish can’t speak.” In the last line of this stanza, Ford uses a simile to describe how the woman “screamed” as a woman “in terrible fear” when she was murdered.
And when they took a ripe golden roe
but refused when some was offered to him.
The “butcher” of this woman only gets worse in the third stanza. After she is dead they “took a ripe golden roe from her side”. “Roe” is an internal egg mass of fish and other marine animals. They speak to another life present within the woman’s body, but as “the doctor said,
this was proof she was just a fish
and anyway an egg is not a child,
Just the fact that the fourth line, “anyway an egg is not a child” was needed, shows that everyone involved was doubting the morality of what they’d just done. This is emphasized further with the last line of this stanza. The doctor chooses not to eat any of the “roe” when it is offered to him. Clearly, he is conflicted about what they’ve done.
Then they put her head and her hands
and the ring stayed put.
The fourth stanza of Guiseppe developed the narrative further. Some time has passed and those involved with her death are now putting her “in a box for burial.” This shows that they feel she does deserve a funeral of sorts. There is a poignant use of enjambment between the first and second lines in which it is revealed that the head and hands were separated from the body and put in a box.
In the next moment, someone from this party tries to “take her wedding ring,” presumably in an effort to sell it and make some money. Others in the group stop him, making him leave the ring where it was. The fact that the woman was wearing a ring at all is interesting. It is a small detail that makes the story more complex. One should also consider the fact that the uncle did not elaborate on her marriage to the speaker. Perhaps he couldn’t face it. Here again, is another interesting contrast that proves that the killers are thinking twice about what they’ve done.
The rest they cooked and fed to the troops.
They said a large fish had been found on the beach.
The fifth stanza is only five lines long and is as gruesome as the lines before it. The rest of the mermaid’s body was “cooked and fed to the troops.” The excuse they gave for its presence was that they found “a large fish…on the beach.” This two-line stanza is one of the more shocking parts of the poem. Therefore it is separate. By doing this, Ford increases the impact of the lines.
Starvation forgives men many things,
for which I thank God.
In the last four lines, the speaker gives an important piece of information. It helps explain some of the behavior these men engaged in. They were starving, a fact the uncle says made what they did less repugnant.
Again, as with the other characters present in the text, there is conflict in his words, actions, and behavior. He told the speaker this, but was unable to “look [him] in the eye” as he said it. This shows that he feels guilt over the death. The uncle probably wishes that he had not been there to witness and likely participate, in it.