Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1518
Rita Dove is a prolific American poet known for confronting history, politics, and the nuances of culture in her works. Her best-known collections, such as Thomas and Beulah (1986), Grace Notes (1989), and Mother Love (1995), reflect this with their wide variety of themes. Dove was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1987 and served as the first black American Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995. (Gwendolyn Brooks was arguably the first, having served in that post under a slightly different title from 1985 to 1986.) Dove’s poem “Parsley” was published in her 1983 collection Museum. “Parsley” is an example of Dove’s ability to mix history, culture, and politics into a thought-provoking poem.
“Parsley” shows the political power of language through the story of the Parsley Massacre. Rafael Trujillo, also known as El Jefe, acted as dictator of the Dominican Republic from the year 1930 until his assassination in 1961. He is known for the brutality of his regime and his racist policies targeting black Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic. Trujillo’s brutal methods are exemplified by the Parsley Massacre, which took place on October 2, 1937. Trujillo used the Spanish word for “parsley,” perejil, as a shibboleth, a word that distinguishes a specific cultural group. Haitians, who speak in Haitian Creole or French, do not pronounce the letter “r” as native speakers of Spanish do. During the massacre, those who pronounced the word perejil in the Haitian manner were systematically killed by Trujillo’s soldiers in order to “purify” the Dominican Republic’s language and, by extension, its culture. The death toll is estimated by some historians to be as high as 20,000.
Summary and Analysis
The poem “Parsley” is separated into two parts. The first part, titled “The Cane Fields,” is spoken in the voice of the Haitian people, and takes the form of a villanelle. A villanelle is a poem that is nineteen lines long, with five tercets (three-line stanzas) and one quatrain (a four-line stanza) in which the first and third lines of the first stanza alternate as the final lines of the tercets. The highly structured poetic form of the villanelle portrays the Haitian people in contrast to Trujillo, who is described in the poem’s second part through disorganized free verse.
- Stanza one of “Parsley” introduces the two repeating lines of the villanelle: “a parrot imitating spring” and “out of the swamp the cane appears.” These lines reveal two important aspects of the poem. First is the parrot, who represents El General’s—the dictator Trujillo’s—obsession with the population’s ability to make the sound of the letter “r.” Second is the sugarcane, which the Haitian workers harvest in the cane fields and which evokes imagery of violence through its association with beatings.
- In stanza two, the speaker describes how “El General searches for a word” and how “he is all the world / there is.” This shows El General’s power and foreshadows his decision to kill Haitians based on their pronunciation of the word perejil.
- Stanza three depicts the deaths of the Haitian people when the speaker says, “we lie down screaming,” and how “we cannot speak an R.” This introduces the conflict between the Haitians and the language El General will use against them. The image of rain “punching” and the speakers “com[ing] up green” contrasts the violence inflicted on the harvesters with the growth of the sugarcane itself.
- In stanza four, the Haitians—who “cannot speak an R”—“call in whispers Katalina,” a mountain whose identity and location are undisclosed. Katalina may refer to Isla Catalina, an island off the southeastern coast of Hispaniola, or another local landmark. If the “l” in Katalina is replaced with the unspoken “r”—a linguistic trope that Dove employs later in the poem—the result is Mount Katarina, or Mount Catherine, the tallest mountain in Egypt. The mountain is the resting place of the martyred Saint Catherine, a figure whose piety and martyrdom may hold significance for the predominantly Catholic Haitians. The speaker also describes how the children’s teeth are “gnawed to arrowheads,” which likely alludes to chewing sugarcane and introduces more images of violence.
- In stanza five, the speaker says that “El General has found his word: perejil.” The speaker states that those who can say it may live. The placement of El General in the swamp—with the cane—positions him as a direct menace to the workers.
- In stanza six, the speaker again says “we lie down,” which is a periphrastic phrase for the deaths of Haitians. The speaker then states that “for every drop of blood / there is a parrot imitating spring.” The drops of blood and the imitative parrots may represent, respectively, the fallen Haitians and the bystanders who fail to speak out against the atrocities at hand. Throughout the poem the parrot is associated with Trujillo, who views the murder of the Haitian population as an act of cultural renewal—a figurative “spring.” “Imitating” then points to the fraudulence of Trujillo’s endeavour.
The second part, titled “The Palace,” changes in tone and point of view. Instead of speaking as the Haitian people in plural first person, the second part uses a third-person point of view to describe the thoughts of the general, or Rafael Trujillo. This part is written in free verse, producing a stream-of-consciousness effect that highlights the disorganization of the general’s mind.
- In stanza one of part two, the speaker states that the word the general has chosen is “parsley.” The general is thinking of his dead mother, who passed away in a previous fall. The general planted his mother’s walking cane at her grave, and now each year it flowers “four-star blossoms.” The image of the flowering walking stick continues the contrast between life and death established by the use of the green herb “parsley” as a tool of violence. The “four-star blossoms” could also be an allusion to the general’s military rank—Trujillo had declared himself a five-star general, which may not have previously existed as a rank. In this capacity, the flowers could symbolize the general’s inability to control as much of the world as he wants.
- Stanza two shows the general visiting his mother’s room, which now houses a parrot. The speaker describes how “the little knot of screams,” presumably within the general, is silenced as he thinks of killing people.
- In stanza three, the speaker describes the parrot as “practising spring,” or imitating the greenery of springtime. Its practice requires no effort and is based entirely on its innate appearance and abilities, just as the Dominicans’ pronunciation of perejil arises effortlessly from their native fluency in Spanish. Thus the parrot’s practice points to the inherent racism of the general’s policies. The speaker explains that the general’s mother died in October while making candies for the Day of the Dead. The general now hates sweets but orders them for the parrot. Sugar—harvested from the cane in the first part of the poem—becomes a symbol of death.
- Stanza four moves from the parrot’s pastries, “dusted with sugar on a bed of lace,” to a vivid memory of war. It shows the general’s contempt at the death of another soldier, saying, “how stupid he looked!”
- In stanza five, the general thinks of the sugarcane fields. The general remembers his mother’s smile, with teeth “gnawed to arrowheads” like those of the Haitian children in part one. The general’s mother and the Haitian children share traits and experiences, but the general is unable to see the children’s humanity. The speaker then describes how the Haitian workers “sing without R’s.”
- Stanza six quotes the Haitian workers’ song: “mi madle, mi amol en muelte”—in Spanish, “my mother, my love in death.” The words are misspelled, with every “r” replaced by an “l,” dramatizing the Haitians’ inability to pronounce the letter “r.” The speaker, in an example of free indirect discourse, reports that the general’s mother was “no stupid woman; she / could roll an R like a queen,” and that “even / a parrot can roll an R!” The contempt evident in this thought process reveals the general’s misunderstanding of the relationship between language and expression. He believes that the Spanish language and its speakers are better than the Haitians, who speak a Creole based on French. However, while the parrot can “roll an R,” it can only do so in imitation of another, not because of any inherent skill or superiority.
- In stanza seven, the general hears a voice that sounds like his mother’s and cries. The phrase “my mother, my love in death,” which was written in Spanish in stanza six, is repeated. The general remembers how the men where he grew up wore “tiny green sprigs… to honor the birth of a son.” This image of birth and life is immediately contrasted with the general’s plan to “order many, this time, to be killed.”
- Stanza eight is a singular line, which isolates the reason for which the general will kill Haitians: “a single, beautiful word.”