The Poem

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“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 They are slaughtered at the behest of a dictator who, as historical documents show, was obsessed with removing influences of neighboring Haiti from Dominican culture.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 this imitation, the appearance of nothing new. This section establishes Trujillo’s absolute authority and the Haitians’ unmitigated oppression. The sugarcane, a dominant image for the livelihood of the Haitians and the economic power of Trujillo’s government, appears ghostly, an image of the blood sacrifice demanded by the general. Dove pivots the villanelle on repeated lines that emphasize the conjunction of unoriginal language and bloody violence: “there is a parrot imitating spring// Out of the swamp the cane appears.”

Section 2 portrays how Trujillo’s murderous decree finds its origin in his psychological equation of desire and death. As section 2 progresses, it becomes clear that Trujillo’s desire to “purify” the workers’ Spanish is linked to his desire to resurrect his dead mother. He keeps his parrot in his mother’s old room and feeds it elaborate sweets, memorials to his mother who collapsed and died one day while preparing pastries for the Day of the Dead, an Aztec festival assimilated into contemporary Dominican culture. “Cane” again serves as a dominant image in this section, as it does in section 1. Yet the phantasmal sugarcane of section 1 becomes, in section 2, the mother’s walking cane “planted” by Trujillo at her grave and perceived by him to flower every spring. When Trujillo hears the workers mispronouncing “Katarina,” a local mountain, as “Katalina,” he perceives this as an affront to his dead mother, who, he says, “was no stupid woman” and “could roll an R like a queen.” Remembering the parsley sprigs that the men of his village wore to signify newborn sons, the general closes his equation of desire and death begun when the parrot opened the poem: He orders the Haitians “to be killed/ for a single, beautiful word.”

Forms and Devices

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The villanelle is one of the most complex forms in English poetry; therefore, it is ironic that Dove chooses this form for the Haitians’ voices, since the general considers their speech inferior to his Spanish. The dancelike circularity of a villanelle pivots on five tercets that lead to a final quatrain. The first line of the opening tercet is repeated as the final line of the second and fourth tercets; the third line of the opening tercet is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth tercets....

(This entire section contains 359 words.)

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These two repeated lines form the last two lines of a villanelle. In section 1, this complex, rigorous repetition contrasts with the empty repetition of the general’s parrot. While the Haitians work the cane fields, they are denigrated by the general, who lavishes luxury upon his parrot in the palace. The Haitians speak a rough Spanish wholly their own; the general, however, privileges the imitative repetitions of his parrot over the original hybrid tongue of the workers. In this upside-down version of linguistic authority in which the imitative is privileged over the original, the general “searches for a word” that will signify that “he is all the world/ there is.” As the section closes, the blood of the Haitians is framed by the “parrot imitating spring.”

Personification dominates the narrative of section 2 as, for example, the workers personify the mountain in their songs while they hack at the fields. The dominant image of the sugarcane becomes the sugared pastries that spoil the parrot, which is the general’s replacement for his dead mother. Trujillo sees his mother’s walking cane in the sugarcane, the parrot resides in the mother’s former room in the palace, and the parrot imitates even the voice of his mother. Desire and death are linked in those images. Symbols of life and creativity are twisted in this section: The original song of the Haitians inspires Trujillo to kill them, he corrupts the life force of his mother into an occasion for massacre, and his memory of artillery fire is dramatized as a song of war in his flashback to the violence of his military career.


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Bellafante, Ginia. “Poetry in Motion.” Time, May 31, 1993, 73.

Carlisle, Theodora. “Reading the Scars: Rita Dove’s The Darker Face of the Earth.” African American Review 34, no. 1 (Spring, 2000): 135-150.

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Dove, Rita, “A Poet’s Topics: Jet Lag, Laundry, and Making Her Art Commonplace.” Interview by Felicity Barringer. The New York Times, June 20, 1993, p. E7.

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