Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610

Like many poems situated at the crossroads of politics and culture, “Parsley” assumes that political ideology and cultural practice intersect most vividly in language. Dove’s poem exposes the violence inherent in attempts to control the dynamic, creative changes that transform all languages over time. Trujillo understands his language to be authentic. Yet at the same time, the most important speaker in his life is a parrot that only imitates language. Trujillo’s parrot merely repeats and does not create. In contrast, the Haitian workers re-create language (in this case, the Spanish language) to reflect their dual cultural position as migrant workers. As much as their language might seem to be an unauthentic derivative of “pure” Spanish, Dove makes sure to cast their voices in the elite form of the villanelle. The parrot’s imitations evoke the wounds of the mother’s death to the point of even imitating the voice of the mother. The Haitians create a new language but suffer death at the hands of a dictator who believes that the imitative language of his parrot is more authentic. Trujillo declares, “Even/ a parrot can roll an R!”

These issues of authenticity, language, and violence are enacted against a ritualistic background that fuses love and death. From the beginning, the parrot’s language is described as “imitating spring,” which stands in direct contrast to autumn, the season of the mother’s death. The parrot’s language is part of an endless circularity that, for Trujillo, brings the mother back to life in the same way that spring cyclically revives the natural world. The cane, too, is part of such a cycle: The Haitians are killed cutting cane in the fall, but the walking cane planted at the mother’s grave “blossoms” for the general each spring.

As much as the poem seems to partake of the impersonal verity of seasonal change, the violence of the poem instead is occasioned by the general’s personal stake in such change. Trujillo’s “thoughts turn/ to love and death” in the fall. The Haitians are the innocent victims of Trujillo’s violent fusion of desire and domination and his location of this violent fusion in language itself. As a child, Trujillo was nicknamed chapita, Spanish for “bottle cap,” because he was a fervent collector of bottle caps. When he became dictator, he banished chapita from the language. “Parsley” describes Trujillo’s attempt to extend such political control to the cycles of nature itself. His parrot can only imitate spring, but Trujillo orders a slaughter in October to reenact spring. His slaughter of the innocent workers is an attempt to “purify” the language of outside influence and cleanse autumn of its associations with his mother’s death.

Usually, ritual is evoked in culture to revive authenticity. Rituals are meant to reacquaint a culture with the epic memory of its past. Yet in “Parsley,” rituals such as the yearly cane harvest, the cycles of nature, national holidays (the Day of the Dead), and childbirth are reduced to images of individual obsession and mass murder. Most of all, the cyclic pattern of the villanelle, which evokes ritual in its creative circularity, is understood by the general as a threat to authenticity. Dove dramatizes Trujillo’s motivation in the form of the poem itself; the shift from villanelle (section 1) to free-verse narration (section 2) portrays Trujillo’s purification strategy as a misreading of language. Trujillo prefers individual memory to cultural verity and thereby produces a series of misreadings in the poem: He elevates imitative language over original language, free-verse narration over the centuries-old villanelle, and the parsley colors of his parrot over the greenery of spring.

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