Rita Dove “Parsley”
Did one ever think that a single word could enter language into history? In the poem by Rita Dove called “Parsley”, it did. During an interview with Rita Dove given by Stan Sanvel Rubin, she explained a little background of the history behind this poem. “In 1957, Trujillo ordered 20,000 Black Haitians killed because they couldn't roll their R's. And he chose the Spanish word for "parsley" in order to test this. It was an act of arbitrary cruelty. But it fascinated me, not only for its political implications but for the way language enters into history at that point-that there's a word that determines whether you live or die (Rubin, Stan Sanvel).” It is quite interesting how this poem is divided into two parts. The first part of the poem indicates the point of view for victims, and then the point of view of the man who gives the order to kill them.
The poem begins with a parrot which is named a green parrot, "imitating spring" (Baym 1636 line 1). At this time, "Parsley" is told from the point of view of the Haitian workers, who soon give us an image of the sugarcane fields as well. The second part of the poem begins with the parsley, not the parrot. Now we're looking in on El General at home, as he thinks of his dead mother and ponders, "Who can I kill today" (Baym 1636 line 31). This section shows where his mother, who was baking cookies on the day she died. El General is reminiscing about her as he feeds his parrot cookies, and as he thinks about killing soldiers in battle. His thoughts turn to the Haitian workers and how they cannot pronounce an "r," something even his mother and his parrot can do. Finally, someone "calls out his name in a voice just like his mother's" (Baym 1637 lines 64-65) then he sheds a tear. But this emotion quickly turns to rage and revenge, as he gives the orders to execute all who cannot pronounce the "r" in "parsley."
There are many themes, but the one that is quite largely stated is the theme of violence and power. This poem is entirely fused with violence. Since the idea is the death of 20,000 people by the order of one man, the work takes on cruelty of larger-than-life magnitudes. Even when it comes to the harvesting sugarcane it is introduced with a kind of violence. This speaks of the words "cut it down in line 4 of the poem." This is followed by screaming, punching, lying down (which may well be dying), gnawing, and arrowheads just in the very first part of the poem. The second bit gets even more explicitly violent, with Trujillo wondering, "Who can I kill today?" It's a bloody poem, but very subtle and haunting one.
The power dynamic in this poem is clearly a rhetorical plot; one man has all the power, and everyone else has none. The way Trujillo uses his power is quite brutal; he uses it to tone down his own unhappiness by inflicting pain on others. The simple historical fact of Trujillo's existence, even if the poem doesn't go into it explicitly, is an example of a power dynamic gone horribly awry. He is a dictator, and he used his leadership to randomly violent ends. The massacre depicted in "Parsley" is something that only someone with immense amounts of power could do. So, thematically, power is hugely relevant to the poem.
The symbolism and theme is immensely strong, and is without a doubt quite graphic. Rita Dove created an excellent piece of work to incorporate language, history, and graphics. There is no doubt that this piece of poetry is great.
Shmoop Editorial Team. "Parsley Symbolism, Imagery & Wordplay." Shmoop.com. Shmoop
University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 13 Dec 2010.
Rubin, Stan Sanvel, and Earl G. Ingersoll. "Poetry Issue." Black American Literature Forum.
Vol. 20 No. 3 ed. St. Louis: St.Louis University, 1986. 224-240. Print.
Baym, Nina. "Rita Dove." The Norton anthology of American literature. Shorter 7th ed. New
York: W.W. Norton, 2008. 1636-1637. Print.
1. The Cane Fields
There is a parrot imitating spring
the palace, its feathers parsley green.
Out of the swamp the cane appears
to haunt us, and we cut it down. El General
searches for a word; he is all the world
there is. Like a parrot imitating spring,
we lie down screaming as rain punches through
and we come up green. We cannot speak an R—
out of the swamp, the cane appears
and then the mountain we call in whispers Katalina.
The children gnaw their teeth to arrowheads.
There is a parrot imitating spring.
El General has found his word: perejil.
Who says it, lives. He laughs, teeth shining
out of the swamp. The cane appears
in our dreams, lashed by wind and streaming.
And we lie down. For every drop of blood
there is a parrot imitating spring.
Out of the swamp the cane appears.
2. The Palace
The word the general’s chosen is parsley.
It is fall, when thoughts turn
to love and death; the general thinks
of his mother, how she died in the fall
and he planted her walking cane at the grave
and it flowered, each spring stolidly forming
four-star blossoms. The general
pulls on his boots, he stomps to
her room in the palace, the one without
curtains, the one with a parrot
in a brass ring. As he paces he wonders
Who can I kill today. And for a moment
the little knot of screams
is still. The parrot, who has traveled
all the way from Australia in an ivory
cage, is, coy as a widow, practising
spring. Ever since the morning
his mother collapsed in the kitchen
while baking skull-shaped candies
for the Day of the Dead, the general
has hated sweets. He orders pastries
brought up for the bird; they arrive
dusted with sugar on a bed of lace.
The knot in his throat starts to twitch;
he sees his boots the first day in battle
splashed with mud and urine
as a soldier falls at his feet amazed—
how stupid he looked!— at the sound
of artillery. I never thought it would sing
the soldier said, and died. Now
the general sees the fields of sugar
cane, lashed by rain and streaming.
He sees his mother’s smile, the teeth
gnawed to arrowheads. He hears
the Haitians sing without R’s
as they swing the great machetes:
Katalina, they sing, Katalina,
mi madle, mi amol en muelte. God knows
his mother was no stupid woman; she
could roll an R like a queen. Even
a parrot can roll an R! In the bare room
the bright feathers arch in a parody
of greenery, as the last pale crumbs
disappear under the blackened tongue. Someone
calls out his name in a voice
so like his mother’s, a startled tear
splashes the tip of his right boot.
My mother, my love in death.
The general remembers the tiny green sprigs
men of his village wore in their capes
to honor the birth of a son. He will
order many, this time, to be killed
for a single, beautiful word.