Analysis of Poem Refugee Ship by Lorna Dee Cervantes

Updated on September 3, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Lorna Dee Cervantes
Lorna Dee Cervantes | Source

Lorna Dee Cervantes and Refugee Ship

Refugee Ship is a short poem that focuses on the experience of a person caught between cultures, that of Mexico and the United States. Language, race and family ties are the key areas explored.

Lorna Dee Cervantes wrote this poem in the late 1970s when still a teenager but it wasn't published until 1981 in a groundbreaking book Emplumada. This book was one of the first written by a chicana (woman or girl of Mexican origin) to influence the literary world in the USA.

Emplumada means to be feathered, whilst pluma can mean feather or pen. The ideas of flight and renewal through writing come together in this unusual title. What was special about Refugee Ship was the fact that on the opposite page in the book was the same poem in Spanish - Barco De Refugiados - a reflection of the two cultures Cervantes was rooted in, yet alienated from.

The poem is a search for identity, the speaker attempting to locate her place in the family, aware of its history but not fully integrated because she has never learnt Spanish.

'There is always this relationship between language and power for me. being unable to speak Spanish was always a big issue for me, a personal issue and an ideological issue.'

It's an existential issue the speaker is faced with. She knows her blood line is Mexican; she can't understand the language. She knows how to speak the English of the culture she doesn't quite understand. She's caught between a rock and a hard place.

The metaphorical ship is journeying on but here is a person in limbo, knowing that this ship will never dock, will never reach a safe haven. She's all at sea without a language, directionless, homeless.

This poem raises huge questions about identity and heritage in a quiet, imagistic fashion. The metaphor is an obvious one and conjures up a picture of a drifting vessel at sea with its confused occupants looking for a place to land.

In contrast, the very personal image of a girl or young woman peering into a mirror, noting her dark hair and bronzed skin, highlights the fact that this is an individual's take on this unfortunate dislocation.

Refugee Ship

Like wet cornstarch, I slide

past my grandmother's eyes. Bible

at her side, she removes her glasses.

The pudding thickens.


Mama raised me without language.

I'm orphaned from my Spanish name.

The words are foreign, stumbling

on my tongue. I see in the mirror

my reflection: bronzed skin, black hair.


I feel I am a captive

aboard the refugee ship.

The ship that will never dock.

El barco que nunca atraca.

Analysis Of Refugee Ship Stanza By Stanza

Refugee Ship offers the reader the rare opportunity to learn about the profound effects on the feelings of a young person (a mestiza) experiencing alienation on board a metaphorical ship.

This particular ship, a metaphor for the journey the refugee has to embark on to reach safety, is not going to dock, so suggesting that for this refugee at least, there will be no end to her feelings of inadequacy and frustration.

Lorna Dee Cervantes's poem thus becomes a voice for countless other Mexican Americans caught in this strange place, unconnected culturally on both sides.

Stanza 1

The reader is taken into the feeling world of the young girl or woman figuratively with the simile of the cornstarch and the sliding motion, quite a graphic introduction to life on board the ship.

She is moving past her grandmother, more specifically her grandmother's eyes, which implies that she has looked into them many times before, perhaps because they are the windows of her soul, and these two souls are sharing what could be a very difficult journey.

Grandmother has been reading the good book, or keeping it close by just in case, and as she takes off her glasses (repeating emphasis on the eyes) we know the reason for the cornstarch - it's being used as a thickener for a pudding, a homely dish which connects to the kitchen and sweet nourishment.

Stanza 2

The scene has been set. Young girl and old grandmother are together, cooking, or at least the girl has been helping out and is now wanting to leave unobtrusively. Her inner thoughts are bubbling to the surface, perhaps because of grandmother's presence.

The reader is given snippets of information from the mind of the speaker. Her mother brought her up but didn't want her to learn Spanish, which was her mother's (and grandmother's) native tongue. Note the use of the past, raised, and orphaned, as the speaker tentatively tries to put things into perspective.

To be an orphan is to be parentless - either through the death of the parents or by being neglected - so the speaker is saying that the language is like a parent, that it nurtures, teaches, and is a reason to be alive.

And the speaker goes on to say that the words are foreign and stumble on her tongue, yet when she looks in the mirror she is a native Mexican, with hair and skin to match.

This dichotomy brings a sense of estrangement. She has no linguistic connection to Mexico yet she appears as if she should - her black hair and bronzed skin tell her she should, she does. Her cultural heritage is undermined by the fact that she is now an English speaker, influenced by American values.

Stanza 3

The speaker reveals her feelings of imprisonment aboard this ship. Her heart, mind and soul are never going to find solace or a true home because of the absence of language, which is a living world where she could be nourished and be able to thrive.

These tensions are made manifest in the last two lines. The journey will not end, there is no place to disembark, her quest to harmonize family, language, race and culture cannot be fulfilled.

These complex issues are not going to be resolved in the poem itself but by writing in both English and Spanish the poet has brought into the light the ongoing problems for the poorer Mexicans striving for recognition in the USA.

Spanish And English In Poem Refugee Ship

Refugee Ship has an unusual pairing of lines at the end. Note the English in line 12 and the translation into Spanish in line 13:

The ship that will never dock.

El barco que nunca atraca.

Further Analysis of Refugee Ship

Refugee Ship is a 13 line poem split into three stanzas. It is a free verse poem, having no end rhymes and variable meter (metre in UK).

  • There is use of enjambment in each stanza, where unpunctuated lines flow into each other, the sense being maintained as the reader hardly pauses. The syntax - short, clipped clauses with punctuation - matches the speaker's train of thought, which is contemplative and reflective:

The words are foreign, stumbling

on my tongue. I see in the mirror

my reflection: bronzed skin, black hair.

  • Note the simile that starts the poem on board the metaphorical ship - wet cornstarch, for bread-making or thickening - a specific domestic product which is at first hard to work but then becomes more like a liquid.
  • This simile is unusual in that it represents the girl speaker's action as she moves past her grandmother's eyes.

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