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...
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