by Rita Dove
In A Nutshell
We're sorry. We know we pride ourselves on being flip and hip here at Shmoop, but things are about to get very heavy here for a minute. Bear with us.
In October 1937 (Dove's note, which places the poem in 1957, is actually a typo), Rafael Trujillo (called "El General" in this poem), military dictator of the Dominican Republic, ordered nearly 20,000 migrant workers (from the neighboring country of Haiti) to be killed because they could not pronounce the Spanish word for "parsley" correctly. Specifically, they could not pronounce the letter "r" – "parsley" in Spanish is "perejil" – so if it came out "pelejil," the speaker was condemned to death for having a Haitian accent.
Rita Dove, an African-American poet, took up this issue when she composed "Parsley," probably one of the preeminent political poems to come out of the United States in the twentieth century. The poem, written in two parts, gives the reader a glimpse into both the world of the Haitian migrant workers living in the Dominican Republic, and then the world of Trujillo himself, where she investigates his chilling inner world for seven long stanzas. (Originally, Dove planned to write only from the Haitian migrants' point of view, so it's interesting that the section on the dictator is so much more developed.) "Parsley," published in 1983, remains one of Dove's most talked-about pieces.
Rita Dove, by the way, was Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993-1995. She has also won the Pulitzer Prize, the Duke Ellington Lifetime Achievement Award, and the National Humanities Medal, among countless other accolades. She is one of the U.S.'s greatest living poetic treasures. And she writes a whopper of a poem about parsley.
Why Should I Care?
We're not going to lie – atrocities are happening right now. Violence is unfortunately a fact of life, and we are positively drenched in it. You only need to turn on the news to realize that. Or read the Internet.
So why bother reading "Parsley," which focuses on yet another horrible thing that's happened? Especially one that took place decades ago?
Well, here's one of the amazing things about poetry (and all good creative writing, really) – it can transport us. Sure, you read/hear about horrible, violent things happening almost daily, but how much stock do you take in it? Obviously you can't take too much, or we'd all be paralyzed by the awfulness of it. That wouldn't be any good, but now this means we can become desensitized, in some ways – and this poem has taken it upon itself to undo that, to tell us about this barbaric event in a way far more intimate than any news story. It's a whole other perspective, one that's much closer, and much scarier for being so close.
Also, political poetry is notoriously difficult to write. If you're even thinking that you might want to write or study political creative writing (and who wouldn't?), this poem is a must-read. So between its message and its success, we think it's a good idea to sit up and listen to "Parsley."