Rita Dove

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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 General. In Dove’s poem, the Haitians are killed because they could not pronounce the letter r in perejil, the Spanish word for “parsley” (Line 8). The first section, “The Cane Fields,” is narrated in the voices of Haitian workers as they are murdered. The second section, “The Palace,” takes as its subject the psychological and sociological dimensions of the Generals motivations. The narration in this section shifts from first person to third person as the general arrives at the decision to murder the cane workers because of the way they speak. This 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 signaling 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” (Line 18-19). 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...
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