Explication Essay

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: April 13, 2017

A A A | A A A

Submitted: April 13, 2017



Azariah McLymore


English 101

15 February 2017


“Truth Serum”


We made it from the ground-up corn in the old black pasture      (1)

Pinched a scent of night jasmine billowing off the fence.        (2)

Popped it right in.        (3)

That frog song wanting nothing but echo?  (4)

We used that. (5)

Stirred it widely. Noticed the clouds while stirring.  (6)

Called upon our ancient great aunts and their long slow eyes  (7)

Of summer. Dropped in their names.    (8)

Added a mint leaf now and then   (9)

To hearten the broth. Added a note of cheer and worry.  (10)

Orange butterfly between the claps of thunder? (11)

Perfect. And once we had it,   (12)

Had smelled and tasted the fragrant syrup, (13)

Placing the pan on a back burner for keeping, (14)

We boiled down the lies in another pan till they disappeared. (15)

We washed that pan.     (16)


What The Past Holds


Naomi Shihab Nye, a poet who focuses on themes of journeys and quests, has given an intentional and peculiar outlook on history in her poem, “Truth Serum” from one of her many famous works, You and Yours (American Poets Continuum).  This narrative poem gives insight into the lies told in the past that affect today’s society.  The world is full of lies, but once the truth is told, people can end up feeling happiness and relief or frustration and hurt.  Even though the speaker wants you to perceive and be conscious of both feelings, the purpose of the poem was to encourage the truth to be told, no matter the cost.  In this way, Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem ,“Truth Serum,” encourages future generations to uncover the lies told in the past, and make future lives better.

In 1952, Naomi Shihab Nye was born in St. Louis, Missouri.  Born to a Palestinian refugee father and a mother of American, German and Swiss descent (Nye 1).  Her experience of cultural differences influenced much of her work.  Nye published her first poetry book in 1980, Different Ways to Pray, and continued to publish books until 2015 ending with the book, Famous.  The title of the poem, “Truth Serum” is a direct reference to what the poem is about.  The definition of the word, according to the Oxford Dictionary is, “ ...a drug supposedly able to induce a state in which a person answers questions truthfully.” (1).  In the poem, the speaker gathered what the reader can assume are ingredients for the serum, which consists of past lies and struggles people have faced.

The poem begins with the line, We made it from the ground-up corn in the old back pasture, capturing the reader's attention and signaling that we will be taken back into history.  It is revealed to the reader that the poem is in the past tense when the speaker utilizes the word  “made.”  In line 1, the idiom “from the ground-up” can refer to starting from the beginning or starting with the most basicthings, as defined in the Macmillan Dictionary (1).  By using the word “pasture” which means a person's situation in life the reader has a right to ask the question: is the poem discussing the beginning of history or can the speaker be referring to one part in history (Oxford Dictionary 1)?  The suspense continues in the next line, while the speaker expresses the action of pinching, “a scent of night jasmine” (line 2).  The speaker applies imagery to the fragrant jasmine plant, painting a picture in the reader’s mind using the word “billowing”.  Jasmine is known as a relaxing plant, the speaker could have added Jasmine to soothe the going down of the ingredients thus far (Marie 1).  All these items the speaker collects are to make something needed for a possible recipe, popping the items, “right in” throughout the poem (line 3).

The speaker adds in a new ingredient in line 4, “that frog song.”  Due to the speaker’s use of nature throughout the poem the reader can assume, “that frog song” could be the sounds the frogs create while the speaker is making the recipe.  The word “echo” in that same line means “...a repetition or imitation of another” (Merriam Webster 1).  The reader might argue, the speaker has added in the word “echo” to represent her feelings of the lies being spread throughout generations. Since the word echo means repetition, the speaker could not want the lies of the past to be hidden or repeated, the way frogs repetitiously croak.  The speaker decided to add that into the pot of ingredients, saying “We used that” and “Stirred it widely” (lines 5-6). “Widely” is an adverb used in the poem, putting emphasis on the stirring taking place. “Widely” can also be used as imagery of the pot being big and full of ingredients. Ingredients can be a metaphor for the issues she is addressing in the poem, like the world’s history and possibly even her family history.

In line 7, the speaker begins to talk about “our great ancestors.”  The speaker could be talking about the ancestors that suffered from times of  slavery to ancestors that participated in the Civil Rights Movement.  By using the words “long slow eyes” she uses imagery once again to help the reader picture tired, hard working people, people who have been through trials and tribulations.  The speaker mentions the season of summer in line 7.  Some would assume the hottest and most tiring days working on plantations were the summer days, making sense for the speaker to describe the eyes as “long” and “slow.” The ancestor reference could also be the speaker adding in the traditions handed down from generation to generation, such as recipes.  The speaker revealed that he/she was making a “broth” with the ingredients he/she has gathered thus far (line 10). The speaker adds “mint leaf” in line 9, affirming it will “hearten the broth.”  Mint leaves are known to  soothe the stomach. It supports digestion, perhaps making the lies of the past easy to swallow.  In line 10, the speaker adds “cheer and worry,” an oxymoron. One may argue that cheer and worry are a part of life, just as truth and lies are.

The next line can be confusing to the reader due to the complicated yet cutting imagery used.  Line 11 reads, Orange butterfly between the claps of thunder?  This line targets the words “Orange butterfly” and “thunder.”  Orange butterflies can symbolize a new dawn of healing and heart transformation  according to Butterfly Insight.  In the Hindu religion thunder symbolizes, “the power and voice of God” (V. 1).  This can be a great asset to the “broth” the speaker is preparing.  Since the mint leaf added a sense of a soothing sensation, the reference of the Orange butterfly between the claps of thunder can mean once the past is let go, a new chapter of life will begin. “Our ancestors” had strong beliefs in their culture and religion.  They could have thought of the possibility of  “God” delivering them from the evils facing them. This was the last ingredient of the “broth,” the speaker exclaiming “Perfect” once finished. In the next line, the speaker decides to taste the “broth” and call it “fragrant.”  Fragrant is a word used to say, “having a sweet and pleasant smell” (1).  The speaker describes the broth as syrup in line 13, which can be a synonym for the word serum, hence the name of the poem, “Truth Serum.”  Syrup can symbolize sweetness.  In the context of the poem, syrup can symbolize a sweet or happy ending. The speaker saves the truth serum for later, by using the line, placing the pan on a back burner for keeping.  When the speaker uses the phrase “back burner” he/she means “...temporary deferment” (Merriam Webster Dictionary 1).  The back burner could simply be on a simmer because change is a process.  The reader may not understand why the speaker wants to defer the truth serum for a later time, until they next line is read.  The sorrow lifted in small ways, the speaker could mean the sorrow from the lies and the past.  Sorrow is a more in depth word for sadness and frustration.  Using this word instead of sadness or frustration, shows the intensity of the past and the trauma it caused to the speaker and his/her ancestors.  The speaker talked about how the sorrow lifted in small ways, the speaker is possibly saying that the truth serum is not enough, the truth serum does not erase the past, but more exposes what happened in the past.

The poem concludes with the lines, We boiled down the lies in another pan till they disappeared. / We washed that pan.  As some know, boiling is an act of purification. Boiling water kills germs and parasites (Elliot 1).  If the speaker boils the lies, he/she is getting rid of the germs that infect her life and even the world.  Some say the world is built on lies, the speaker is possibly trying to act as if purifying the world will make it a better place. The speaker could also have a family history built off lies that she wants to settle.  In line 16, the speaker claims the “lies” disappear due to the boiling, which supports the statement of him/her trying to get rid of lies in the world or in his/her’s family history.  The last line in the poem states, We washed that pan.  Washing means to, “to apply water or some other liquid to (something or someone) for the purpose of cleansing…” (Merriam Webster Dictionary 1).  The final action of the speaker was to wash the lies out of the pan that were boiled away.  Even though the lies were non existent due to the boiling, the speaker still felt the need to wash the pan.  This shows a possible reassurance the speaker may have needed, to know the lies will not come back to haunt him/her or future generations.  It can also symbolize forgiveness.

Naomi Shihab Nye’s works are powerful pieces that contribute to the growing movement of African- American history.  She shows her skills through her poems, using extraordinary imagery to let readers glance into what she calls her life.  Throughout the poem Truth Serum, the speaker was making a recipe for a truth serum, created to combine all the madness and lies the past holds.  This serum will hopefully be used to help the present and future generations from turning into what the past was.  Nye did an excellent job in making her readers think outside of the box with lines like, Orange butterfly between the claps of thunder? and We boiled down the lies in another pan till they disappeared.  She will continue to be acclaimed as a well written and appreciated poet of her time, inspiring others to create their own truth serums.


Works Cited


“Back Burner.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster,

www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cheer. Accessed 27 Feb. 2017.

“Butterfly Insight.” Myths, Symbolism and Meaning of Orange Butterflies,


Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.

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 Definition and Synonyms | Macmillan Dictionary, MacMillan Dictionary,

www.macmillandictionary.com/us/dictionary/american/from-the-ground-up. Accessed 26

Feb. 2017.

“Echo.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cheer.

Accessed 27 Feb. 2017.

Elliot, Adelle. “How Long to Boil Water for Purification?” USA Today, Gannett Satellite

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Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.

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Accessed 27 Feb. 2017.


“Health Benefits of Mint.” Organic Facts, 6 Feb. 2017,


Accessed 27 Feb. 2017.

Marie, Linda. “The History of the Jasmine Flower.” GardenGuides,

www.gardenguides.com/138962-history-jasmine-flower.html. Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

Nye, Naomi Shihab. “Naomi Shihab Nye.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,


Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

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Accessed 27 Feb. 2017.

"Truth serum, n.1." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 26 February


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Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.

“Washing.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cheer.

Accessed 27 Feb. 2017.


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