‘Parsley’ is based around the true story of a mass killing that occurred in 1937 in the Dominican Republic. Rafael Trujillo, referred to as “El General” in the text, was the military dictator of the country. He ordered everyone put to death who could not pronounce the word “parsley” in Spanish, “perejil”. Those who were unable to say the letter “r” and therefore had a Haitian accent, were murdered. Dove published ‘Parsley’ in 1983, and to this day it remains one of her best-known works.
Summary of Parsley
The first part of the poem is told from the perspective of the laborers who, practically enslaved to Trujillo, work in the fields. They are haunted by his image and by the image of the sugarcane growing through the swamp. These workers are controlled, in every way possible, by this incredibly cruel man. In the second half of the poem, the speaker moves into the third person in order to give the reader some insight into Trujillo’s mind. His sorrow over the death of his mother is the driving force that inspires him to slaughter all those who could roll their “r’s” as she could.
You can read the full poem here.
Themes in Parsley
in ‘Parsley,’ readers are exposed to themes of sorrow and violence. These two, along with fear, make up the entire poem. They are partially clear in the second section when the poet focuses on El General’s perspective and his outrageous reaction to the death of his mother. He learned long ago that the only thing that would relieve his sorrow or general unhappiness was the sorrow of others. He has always taken pleasure from hurting other people and after his mother died, and he didn’t know how to deal with the loss, he ordered the deaths of thousands of people. While Dove took some liberties with the narrative, the basic principles remain intact.
Structure and Form
‘Parsley’ by Rita Dove is a two-part poem that is separated into one set of six lines and another set of eight. In part one, “The Cane Fields,” the stanzas are all tercets(except for the final stanza which is a quatrain, four lines).
In part two, “The Palace,” the lines are mostly either seven or eight lines long with the final stanza containing only one line in total. Dove wrote the second part of the poem in free verse, meaning there is no single metrical pattern or rhyme scheme. The first part is slightly different though. It can be regarded as a villanelle, although a loosely composed one.
Dove makes use of several literary devices in ‘Parsley,’ these include but are not limited to examples of enjambment, repetition, allusions, and caesurae. The first, enjambment, is a formal technique that is concerned with the transitions between lines and where the poet chose to use or not use end-punctuation. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza in part one or lines two and three of the first stanza in part two.
There are also examples of caesurae in the lines. This is another formal technique that occurs when the poet chooses to create pauses in the middle of the lines. This is done with either the meter or with punctuation. The first line of the second stanza in part one is a great example. It reads: “to haunt us, and we cut it down. El General”.
One of the most important parts of this poem is Dove’s choice to allude to real-life events. Without these allusions, the poem would lose much of its meaning and its impact. In the second stanza, the poet makes her first allusion to “El General,” the name she uses for Rafael Trujillo the military dictator of the Dominican Republic. The more a reader learns about the events that the poem is inspired by, the more meaning they’re going to be able to read into the lines.
There are also some clear examples of repetition in the poem. For instance, the use and reuse of the word “spring” in part one. This is known as epistrophe and is part of what makes this first section a very loose villanelle.
Analysis of Parsley
Part I: The Cane Fields
Stanzas One and Two
There is a parrot imitating spring
in the palace, its feathers parsley green.
there is. Like a parrot imitating spring,
In the first stanza of ‘Parsley,’ the speaker begins with some fairly peaceful, seemingly harmless imagery. She describes a parrot that is imitating spring. This is a reference to the bright green color of its feathers. It sits in a palace, a place of great wealth. The poem does not immediately state why the parrot is there, but it’s very likely a pet of some sort. Readers should immediately take note of the use of the word “parsley” to describe the feathers. This is, of course, an allusion to the murders at the heart of this poem. In the third line of this stanza, the poet mentions “the cane. “ This is a reference to sugarcane that’s growing up. It also creates contrast or juxtaposition between the palace and the work of laborers who grow sugarcane.
The poet uses the word “us“ in the second stanza. Suggesting that the combined speakers are the first stanza are the sugarcane workers. The sugarcane, in a way, is oppressing them. It grows up, and they’re forced to cut it down. It’s haunting them. This is a more complex allusion to the dictator of the Dominican Republic. He’s referred to as El General. He owned many acres of sugar came plantation, and it’s very likely that the workers in these fields were subjected to terrible conditions. When the speaker brings in El General, he’s searching for a word. The “word“ that he’s looking for is “parsley”. He is “all the world“. To the workers, he is the beginning and end. He’s in complete control of their fates.
The final line of the second stanza brings the parrot and spring back in. This is part of the very loose structure that dove created with these first stances. It is known as a villanelle. This is one of the two lines that’s repeated.
Stanzas Three and Four
we lie down screaming as rain punches through
There is a parrot imitating spring.
At the beginning of the third stanza, the tone of the poem changes dramatically. The poem describes the workers lying down and screaming as the rain punches. This is a terrifying image that is intimately connected with the murders the general is committing. The phrase “come up green“ refers to death and decomposition. Before elaborating on the importance of the letter “r”, the line “out of the swamp, the cane appears“ is repeated.
The fourth stanza brings in a mountain that the workers “call in whispers Katalina”. They are surrounded by trauma on every side. The children grind their teeth into what Dove describes as arrowheads. This line is more metaphorical than it is literal. It is meant to convey the intensity of their emotions and worry.
Stanzas Five and Six
El General has found his word: perejil.
Who says it, lives. He laughs, teeth shining
Out of the swamp the cane appears.
In the fourth stanza, Dove describes the “word“ that the general has discovered. It’s the word parsley, in Spanish perejil. If one can say it, they live. This is something that he takes pleasure in. Dove describes him as a monster, emerging out of the swamp as the cane does.
Dove uses more violent language in the next lines, describing the way that rain and wind “lash” the words. There is “blood” on the ground, suggesting that the men and women, innocent laborers, are being killed for their pronunciation. Dove notes that for every “drop of blood / there is a parrot imitating spring”. There is some beauty in the world, even when horror and fear seem universal.
Part II: The Palace
The word the general’s chosen is parsley.
It is fall, when thoughts turn
four-star blossoms. The general
The second part of the pome is structured a little bit differently. The stanzas vary more in length while also losing any semblance of a pattern. The speaker starts by repeating the word “parsley,” as if she is trying to come to terms with what this man did. It’s quite clear from these first lines the speaker has changed. It’s now a third-person perspective looking down at the scene rather than from within it. Dove allows the reader access into El General, or “the general” as he’s called in these lines, mind. He immediately becomes much more human and even sympathetic as he recalls burying his mother.
Some words like “plant” and “cane” should stick out as important parts of the previous part. The “four-star blossom” is a symbol of wealth as well as one of the general’s rank.
pulls on his boots, he stomps to
her room in the palace, the one without
is still. The parrot, who has traveled
The parrot comes back into the poem in the second stanza, as does the general’s cruelty. He stops into his mother’s room and completes who he could “kill today.” The thought soothes him, suggesting that violence is the only thing that makes him feel better. The “knot of screams / is still” in his mind when he contemplates harming someone else.
all the way from Australia in an ivory
cage, is, coy as a widow, practising
brought up for the bird; they arrive
The parrot is once more described in terms of the spring season in the next lines. But, this time, he is “practicing” rather than “imitating” spring. Its also made clear in these lines that his mother’s death was an incredibly important part of his life. It shaped who he is today, in big ways sand small ways. Juxtaposed against the outrageous and horrifying violence in this poem is the general’s hasted of “sweets,” something that came into being since his mother collapsed “baking skull-shaped candies” in the kitchen. This seems like an incredibly odd detour from the heart of the poem but its all part of Dove’s attempts to shed light on multiple parts of the event.
dusted with sugar on a bed of lace.
The knot in his throat starts to twitch;
the soldier said, and died. Now
The patsies in the previous stanza come back into the poem in the fourth stanza of this section. They’re another of the many symbols of wealth that are associated with the general. His parrot eats better than the works in his fields, despite the fact that they are working with the very product that dusts the sweets.
There is this moment of peace, but it soon devolves as the general’s throat starts to twitch, and his mind casts back to a battle. A solider he killed is dead at his feet and Trujillo remembers how “stupid” the man looked there. These lines also give the reader more insight into the love the general has for violence. The artillery, he says, sounded like it was singing. This is something that surprised him then.
the general sees the fields of sugar
cane, lashed by rain and streaming.
Katalina, they sing, Katalina,
Some of the words featured in the first section of the poem come back in the fifth stanza of this section. The general sees the “fields of sugar” and the rain that lashes it. His enslaved workers are either in his line of sight or he’s thinking about them. His mind immediately connects to thoughts of his mother, and the “arrowhead” imagery comes back in again. Its obvious that Trujillo is trying to control his rage and sorrow through violence, at least in this telling of events.
mi madle, mi amol en muelte. God knows
his mother was no stupid woman; she
disappear under the blackened tongue. Someone
The first line of the sixth stanza features several Spanish words written without their “r’s.” This is in imitation of how the Haitian workers would’ve sung the lyrics. It should translate to “my mother, my love in death.” The general is so incredibly angered by this and what he sees as their stupidity that he has to do something about it. Even the parrot, he notes, can “roll an R.”
The final description of the parrot in these lines has it as a parody, sad or insulting imitation of spring. This is not something positive. Rather, it revealed that the beauty of spring is not real; the “beauty” that might’ve been present in the first section isn’t natural. The horror is far more powerful.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
calls out his name in a voice
so like his mother’s, a startled tear
for a single, beautiful word.
Dove uses enjambment to connect the last line of the sixth stanza to the seventh. Even when the general is about to murder innocent men and women, he’s crying over the death of his mother. A “startled tear” falls and hits his boot. She was very clearly quite important to him. He connects his emotions back to his youth and his memories of fathers wearing sprigs of parsley in their lapels when they had a son. This image moves him deeply, so much so that he has to counteract it with the murder of “many”. All these men in women, as the final, one line stanza states, are filled for “a single, beautiful word”. For him, the more destruction he causes, the better. Their suffering makes him feel better about his own.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Parsley’ should also consider reading some of Dove’s other best0known poems. For example, ‘Rosa’ and ‘Demeter’s Prayer to Hades’. The latter is a short poem from the perceptive of the greek god Demeter. She addresses Hades, telling him that his actions, despite his status, have consequences. The former, ‘Rosa,’ is dedicated to the civil rights icon Rosa Parks. Some other poems of interest might be ‘Outside History’ by Eavan Boland and ‘The Way Spain Was’ by Pablo Neruda.