Parsley

By Rita Dove b. 1952 Rita Dove
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   
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.

NOTES: On October 2, 1937, Rafael Trujillo (1891-1961), dictator of the Dominican Republic, ordered 20,000 blacks killed because they could not pronounce the letter “r” in perejil, the Spanish word for parsley.

Rita Dove, “Parsley” from Museum (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1983). Copyright © 1983 by Rita Dove. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Museum (1983)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Rita Dove b. 1952

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Subjects History & Politics, Social Commentaries, War & Conflict

Poetic Terms Villanelle

 Rita  Dove

Biography

Rita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952, the daughter of one of the first black chemists in the tire industry. Dove was encouraged to read widely by her parents, and excelled in school. She was named a Presidential Scholar, one of the top one hundred high-school graduates in the country and attended Miami University in Ohio as a National Merit Scholar. After graduating, Dove received a Fulbright to study at the University of . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT History & Politics, Social Commentaries, War & Conflict

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Poetic Terms Villanelle

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.