Death by the Letter R

To understand poems, it is usually necessary to understand the poet’s history. But when it comes to historical poems, it can be equally important, if not more important, to understand the poem’s history. Sometimes, you don’t even know you are reading a historical poem, or what the poem is really about, which can make it tougher to bust. However a good  historical poem that hides the history, and is thus a little obscure, relies on evoking feeling for the reader — not necessarily emotion, but feeling so that the reader says, “I don’t know why I liked that poem, but I liked it a lot.”

For me, a good example of such a poem is “Parsley” by Rita Dove. I have read very little of Dove, but every time I have I haven’t been disappointed. One thing that seems to be clear with her is that it is hard to pigeonhole her into a particular school, subject matter, or form.  One common theme she seems to have is the history of Africans/African Americans. “Parsley” epitomizes her patternless poetry.

If you are unaware of the Parsley Massacre as it is called, let me give you some brief history and spare you a bit of obscurity.

In 1937 the Dominican Republic’s dictator Rafael Trujillo decided the Hiatians living within the borderlands of Haiti and the Dominican Republic should be killed. Hiatians couldn’t pronounce the letter R, and to determine who was a Haitian and who wasn’t, soldiers held up some Parsley and asked the Haitians what it was. If they couldn’t pronounce the word correctly, they were shot.

The first thing I want to talk about is the title. There has been a bit of conversation on Twitter lately about titles, how poets come up with titles.

In The Art and Craft of Poetry, Michael J. Bugeja says there are three types of poems: descriptive,  suspense, and label. Bugeja says:

A descriptive title depicts content, a suspense one sparks interest, and the label variety is just that — a word or two as on a can of vegetables: “Beans” or “Creamed Corn.”

I could’t agree more. Upon first read “Parsley” then is a label title. And it is, but titles can cross dress. Is the poem about the herb? No, it’s not. We pretty much guess that after reading the first two stanzas, so it’s label and something else.

The poem is also a sectional poem. A sectional poem is a poem divided up into sections; each section could stand on its own, but put together make for a better overall statement. Section 1 of this poem is called ‘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
searches for a word; he is all the world
there is. Like a parrot imitating spring,

we lie down screaming as the rain punches through
and we come up green. We cannot speak an R —
out of the swamp, the cane appears

Not a mention of the herb yet; the only mention is the color of the parrot. But this section is a villanelle. By the time I get to the end of the third stanza, I have identified this poetic form by the repetition of lines, and the tercets (three-line stanzas) ending in a quartrains (four-line stanzas). I won’t go into the villanelle form, what it is, but you can read more about it here. What is interesting is that the second section is not a villanelle, as it is written in seven and eight line stanzas. Whether it is a closed form like the first section is yet to be seen.

The Villanelle and first section ends:

and then the mountains we call in whispers Katalina.
The children gnaw their teeth to arrowheads.
There is a parrot imitating spring.

El General has found his word: perijil.
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.

The villanelle’s repetitions evokes the repetitions that the Haitians feel in their lives in the cane fields. The teeth gnawed into arrowheads is lost on me; I am not sure what that refers to. Does anyone know? Perijil is their word for parsley. The parrot imitates spring simply by being a parrot — what season do you think of when you think of birds? The parrot is a real parrot, but it also seems to be a symbol, a figurative parrot imitating a figurative spring. I am a little lost on the symbolism, but what great imagery.

The second section is called ‘The Palace.’ So the first stanza was written from the cane field worker’s point of view, which we know by the title of the section, as well as the section itself — the use of “we” in the poem; now, seeing the title of the second stanza ‘The Palace,’ the obvious assumption is that this will be from the dictator’s point of view.

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

So now we know the second section is in free verse. What images there are in the first few stanzas — the parrot coy as a widow — the dictator asking who he can kill today as if he were asking what was on TV (of course there was no TV at that time, but you get my meaning) — the Day of the Dead, a festival in their culture.

And the mother. The sense of mother-son relationship to an eerie and unsettling degree. The movie Psycho comes to mind. I feel uncomfortable reading the poem. It continues, as pastries 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.

A couple notes: a) Katalina has an L instead of an R, b) as does mi madle, mi amol en muelte, which is translated in the next stanza as My mother, my love in death.

So you can see how this poem epitomizes Rita Dove’s poetry: African history, no set style of form.

Now let’s end by going back to where we started: the title. “Parsley” is a label title, but it is a misleading label, so it crosses into a suspense title. The title looks to be about one thing, and ends up being something else. I just wrote a poem where the topic was X, but the theme was an unrelated Y. I gave the poem a label title of Y.

However, the titles of the sections were label titles in their truer forms. I say truer and not true because the titles were symbols of the subjects, not the subject themselves. ‘The Palace’ instead of ‘The Dictator.’ 20,000 died, executed, all because of a letter of the alphabet. And what a beautiful poem because of it. Perhaps the pearl among the, well, you know what.

Joshua Gray

Washington DC native poet that now lives in Kentucky.

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