“Parsley” revisits a horrific moment in Caribbean history and, in doing so, highlights the manner in which language and ideology can combine to produce political violence. The poem dramatizes the slaughter of thousands of migrant Haitian sugarcane workers by troops following orders from Dominican Republican dictator General Rafael Trujillo on October 2, 1937. (Rita Dove’s notes to the poem erroneously indicate the date of the massacre as October 2, 1957.) In Dove’s poem, the Haitians are killed because they could not pronounce the letter r in perejil, the Spanish word for “parsley.” They are slaughtered at the behest of a dictator who, as historical documents show, was obsessed with removing influences of neighboring Haiti from Dominican culture. The first section, a villanelle titled “The Cane Fields,” is narrated in the voices of Haitian workers as they are murdered. The second section, titled “The Palace,” takes as its subject the psychological and sociological dimensions of Trujillo’s motivations. The narration in this section shifts from first person to third person as Trujillo arrives at the decision to murder the cane workers because of the way they speak.
The poem opens with a contrast of original and unoriginal modes of language. The general’s parrot, with its “parsley green” feathers, offers the first articulations of the poem by imitating human language and human convention but signalling, through...
(The entire section is 511 words.)