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by Rita Dove


Symbol Analysis

Well, it's the title of the poem, so that's got to be important, right? Right. It totally is, and in a couple of different ways. First of all, it's a historical truth – Trujillo ("El General") really did make Haitians try to pronounce the word "parsley" in order to determine whether or not they lived or died. On a more purely symbolic level, the word is representative of a whole legion of crimes and atrocities committed over simple, insignificant differences. (Skin color, anyone? Political preference? Religious beliefs?) The historical event, and thus the parsley itself, becomes representative of a kind of horrible arbitrariness – people hate for no reason, and they'll kill for no reason.

Thus, the parsley is not so much a plant in this poem. Instead, parsley represents the fact of difference and the (perhaps fatal) power of language. After all, the last line of the whole poem is "for a single, beautiful word." And we know exactly what that word is, and the weight of it is just huge.

  • Line 2: The word "parsley" is invoked early in the poem, but only as a modifier for the word "green." Still, it does it's work – because the poem is entitled "Parsley," and because of Dove's note, the word carries some serious weight.
  • Line 13: Now it appears in Spanish ("perejil"). Trujillo has "found it," i.e., has found a word that will most certainly be mispronounced by anyone who's not Dominican. This is what he's going for – a kind of racial cleansing. This is how Trujillo's going to go about doing it.
  • Line 20: This is a reiteration of Line 13, really, just in English.
  • Lines 68-70: Here we get a very specific image of parsley being used as a symbol for the joy and pride fathers feel when they have a son. This is a little ironic, as parsley in this poem tends more to be an allusion to death than to birth, but it also makes the choice of the word less arbitrary. It's a plant that symbolizes happiness, here – which Trujillo does not have, and goes mad because of it.

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