1. The Cane Fields
There is a parrot imitating spring in the palace, its feathers parsley green. Out of the swamp the cane appears
to haunt us, and we cut it down. El General 5 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
10 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 15 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
20 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 25 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 30 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 35 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 40 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 sore throat starts to twitch; he sees his boots the first day in battle 45 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
50 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 55 as they swing the great machetes: Katalina, they sing, Katalina,
mi madre, mi amol en muelte. God knows his mother was no stupid woman; she could roll an R like a queen. Even 60 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 65 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 70 to honor the birth of a son. He will order many, this time, to be killed
for a single, beautiful word.
The event at the center of "Parsley" is horrendous: a dictator orders 20,000 blacks to be killed because they can't pronounce the letter "R." How do you even begin to think about something like that? If you are writing a poem about it, one way to begin is to decide what your point of view should be. Or to put it another way, where should the poem place the reader in relation to the event.
Rita Dove divides her poem into two parts, and the two parts correspond to two very different points of view: first, that of the victims, and then that of the man who gives the order to kill them. But how the world looks, how it makes sense (or maybe doesn't make sense at all) once we've been put into those two places, depends on the details. In the first section, the voice we hear speaks in the first person, and it's a collective voice: "the cane appears to haunt us, and we cut it down." The dictator is a kind of alien presence, known only from the outside and from the distance; he's only referred to by his title, "El General." Everything around the "we" who speaks seems to be deceptive and threatening: the parrot only imitates spring, the cane appears out of the swamp to haunt the people, who "lie down screaming as the rain punches through." When the point of view shifts to the palace in the second part, we are taken into the general's mind, shown some of his most intimate fears. And yet, the poem doesn't say "I" as it had said "We" earlier. No matter how deep into his character we go, the poem still uses "he." We are inside and outside of this man at the same time; the poem exposes him, and also keeps its distance. So then, as his murderous impulse begins to take its place within a very strange chain of associations -- love, his mother, death, skull-shaped candies -- we're allowed to inhabit his world, while at the same time remaining apart from him, and that's exactly right. We see the crazy logic of his private emotions, but the poem never invites us to become this man, by letting him say "I."
Haiti is located on the western third of the island of Hispaniola; The Dominican Republic occupies the remainder of the island. In 1930, Rafael L. Trujillo took power in the Dominican Republic and subsequently ruled the nation, as a dictator, for the next thirty-one years, until his assassination on May 30, 1961. He had begun his career in the army, and his dictatorship, based on military force, was widely criticized for its brutal repression of basic human rights.
Click here to see a photograph of Trujillo inspecting a rifle.
Haitians, who are primarily of African descent, constitute the largest minority in the Dominican Republic. Haiti was at one time a colony of France and its people still speak French or Creole, while the language of the Dominican Republic is Spanish. Agriculture is the Dominican Republic's dominant industry, and sugar cane its most important crop.
Click here to see a photograph of a worker in the cane fields of the Dominican Republic.
The Poet´s Life and Work
- Arnold Rampersad, "The Poems of Rita Dove."
- Helen Vendler, "Rita Dove: Identity Markers."
- Ekaterini Georgoudaki, "Rita Dove: Crossing Boundaries."