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On the Origins of "Parsley"

Therese Steffen
[German quotations translated by Douglas Haynes]

Borders and boundaries in Dove’s poetry are warp and woof in a tightly-woven fabric of private preordination, or tenacity, and public determination. This is also the case in a seemingly unilateral division. According to Fritz Gysin, it is: an asymmetrical variant including elements of the first two forms. The unilateral boundary is pervious a) from one side only, b) in one direction only, c) for agents of one side only. It can be illustrated by a situation in which people of one group have access to, or control of, the living space of the other group, but not vice versa (unpublished lecture, 1994, ms. pp. 23-24).

"Parsley," a meditation on a death sentence and one of Dove’s best-known poems—as poet laureate she read it at the White House—reports an incident at the Haitian-Dominican border, which in the 1930s was de facto traversable for Dominicans but closed to Haitians [1]. De jure, the case was even more complicated. Not clearly delimited since 1844, the border was redefined in 1929 when thousands of Haitians already lived abroad. In 1937[2], to stop the influx of immigrants, the unilateral border, though officially still "open," was brutally enforced. The narrative poem in two parts deals with the massacre of approximately 20,000 Haitians, paradoxically guest workers on Rafael Trujillo’s sugarcane plantations on the Haitian border. There the psychopathic dictator (1930-1961) determined the destiny of the needed and undesirables in his land by having the potential victims pronounce the shibboleth perejil, Spanish for "parsley." Creole speakers of French, he certainly knew, would inevitably fail the test. Standing at bayonet point, those who could not roll an "R" in perejil were condemned as Haitians and sentenced to death.

Most important for the genesis of Dove’s work in general, and for "Parsely" in particular, is the German cultural; background. It was Hubert Fichte’s study Petersilie [3] – the epilogue features a prose version of the "Parsley" story – that served as a starting point for the poem [4].  Fichte’s text as a prose foil for the poem also reveals several intriguing parallels with Dove’s own poetics of boundary crossing. In his 1994 essay "Das Heterogene, Das Werk," Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs [5] describes Fichte’s anthropological aesthetics as an "open literature," his associative imagining as less confined in its use of heterogeneity than a thematically bound and restricted writing. In Zora Neale Hurston’s footsteps, Hubert Fichte collects anthropological material in the Caribbean, including folk-tales, myths and political vignettes. This is precisely Dove’s point of departure and the aim of her transcultural enspacements in poetry, but she does more than merely articulate the heterogeneous and unadjustable as Heinrich’s term "Erkenntnispoesie" [poetry of recognition] stipulates.

In short, with precise images and scurrilous details, Dove evokes Trujillo’s perverted reverence of language. Embodying the frightening testimony in the exquisite form of a villanelle [6] in the first part only intensifies the horror:

[Steffen here quotes "The Cane Fields," Part One of "Parsley," emphasizing "r" sounds]

"Parsley" not only shows language at the threshold of life and death but also deconstructs oppressive political patterns by revealing the dictator’s psyche. Dove highlights in the opening lines his grotesque mimicry of his mother’s pronunciation with their "imitating parrot" and reiterated jarring "Rs," a sound cage "with a kind of growl to it even in English, a subdued growl I suppose in American English" [Rubin and Ingersoll interview with Dove, p. 231]. The anonymous workers in this dictator’s hand can only counteract the machine-gun like iteration of "Rs" with four waves of natural greenery: "Out of the swamp the cane appears." [7] "Spring" and "appears," the two recurring rhymes of the villanelle, are paired in the concluding lines, where the artificial greenery of an "imitating spring" encounters the fast growing green of " the cane [that] appears." Whereas the first part, The Cane Fields, is a villanelle where enjambments and iterations combine to mirror formally the rolling cane fields, the second, "The Palace," opposed to the open fields in its enclosures, consists of seven stanzas of seven or eight lines each that are followed by a detached, conclusive line "to be skilled / for a single, beautiful word."

The second part reveals an inner world of the obsessive-compulsive, a Freudian repetition compulsion mirrored in the ubiquitous letter "R." Deranged since his mother’s death, and hearing the parrot, or the field workers call her name – "Katalina, they sing, Katalina / mi madle, miamol en muelte" – he feels vexed by the presence of the people who cannot "roll an R like a queen. Even a parrot can roll an R." For the General who lives in the continuous anxiety of being ridiculed "The knot in his throat starts to twitch" and relief comes by killing. Obsessed with language as any poet is and still neurotically bound to his mother, he kills to defend his and her honor (Helen Vendler, "Blackness and Beyond Blackness," Times Literary Supplement 18 February 1994, 11-13). Perversely, the cultural symbol of newborn life, "Parsley," turns into its contrary: a death sentence. Yet, paradoxically, the parrot who lives in the dictator’s deceased mother’s curtainless room is also a "migrant worker" who "traveled all the way from Australia in an ivory cage." In his double enclosure of a cage and a palace, he lives doubly removed from his natural habitat. "Coy as a widow practicing spring," he does so in mimicry of El General and his death mother who "collapsed in the kitchen while baking skull-shaped candies for the Day of the Dead." With "its feathers parsley-green," only "imitating spring," he is associated with mimicry, that is, "life-in-death" and "bright feathers arch in a parody of greenery" [Steffens emphasizes the "r" sounds in this passage]. A range of contrastive imagery emphasizes the gap between form and content: the palace’s artificial enclosure contrasts with the open swamp, out of which waves of fast-growing sugarcane come to threaten the single walking cane planted at the General’s Mother’s grave. In an ironic imitation of spring, this act of "love in death" stolidly produces "four-star blossoms" in honor of the four-star generalissimo. Within the palace, the beautifully contained parrot in his ivory cage contrasts with the skull-shaped candies the General’s mother was preparing before she collapsed. His hatred for sweets and for those who grow and cut its raw material, cane, is already linked with his emptiness accentuated by his mother’s death. The beautiful "pastries brought up for the bird" are "dusted with sugar on a bed of lace." An image of incestuous refinement reflecting the son’s love for his dead mother vies with the "mud and urine as a soldier falls at his feet." From this palatial wasteland, however, the General "sees fields of sugarcane, lashed by rain and streaming," a lavish abundance of water set against his single "startled tear [that] splashes the tip of his right boot." Beautiful form and painful content – the singing on the verge of disaster and the killing – conjoin stretto-like in the General’s final perverse reversal of the folk gesture of wearing "tiny green sprigs" to honor the birth of a son into his order to kill "for a single, beautiful word." In the end, the shibboleth perejil is no longer mentioned but metonymically referred to:

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.

Yet since the days of the Conquistadores the master language Spanish itself would replace an "R" with an "L" and produce "Katalina" for "Katharina" (Fichte, p. 46). [8]

The biblical tradition reports "shibboleth" as an irrevocable password used by the men of Gilead to distinguish the escaping Ephraimites who pronounced the initial [ƒ] as [s] (Judges 12:4-6). Crucial for the genesis of "Parsley," however, is the German cultural background that is not only palpable in Paul Celan’s extensive use of the shibboleth as a racial marker [9] but also in Hubert Fichte’s study Petersille. Dove’s poem transforms the German prose into a transcultural icon.

Her aim – as revealed by the poems discussed here – is a synthesis of antithetical moments, a fusion into something whole and new. In choosing Fichte’s anthropological vignettes and a Spanish shibboleth, Dove enacts a double transatlantic cultural passage: as an African American who came to study expressionist drama, Rilke and Paul Celan, in Tübingen in 1974, she relocates a token of Judeo-Christian European poetic tradition in the Caribbean. Art has finally created a memorial, a home for those killed in the name of a master language.

[1] See Robert D. Crassweller (1966), Trujillo: The Life and Times of a Caribbean Dictator (New York: Macmillan), 154-156; Hubert Fichte (1988), Petersilie. Die afroamerikanischen Religionen, Santo Domingo, Venezuela, Miami, Grenada, 1980 (Frankfurt/M: Fischer), epigraph, 45-47; Ulrich Fleischmann (1994), “Petersilie am Massaker-Fluss. Die Gesischte einer Grenze,” Dominikanische Republik, 1991 (Köln: DuMont), 144-45; S. Weise, ed. (1994), Die Dominkanische Republik, 1991 ((Köln:Mundo), 81.

 [2] See Robert D. Crassweller (1966), Trujillo: The Life and Times of a Caribbean Dictator (New York: Macmillan), 154-156; Hubert Fichte (1988), Petersilie. Die afroamerikanischen Religionen, Santo Domingo, Venezuela, Miami, Grenada, 1980 (Frankfurt/M: Fischer), epigraph, 45-47; Ulrich Fleischmann (1994), “Petersilie am Massaker-Fluss. Die Gesischte einer Grenze,” Dominikanische Republik, 1991 (Köln: DuMont), 144-45; S. Weise, ed. (1994), Die Dominkanische Republik, 1991 ((Köln:Mundo), 81.

 [3] An example of parsley as a paradigmatic sign of life in modern poetry can be found in William Carlos Williams’s poem “Good Night” (1916).  The epigraph in Hubert Fichte’s enlightening study Petersilie reads:

Am 2. Oktober 1937 liess Trujillo, der Staatschef der Dominikaneschen Republik, 20,000 Neger ermordern. Sie wurden von den Exekutionskommandos gezwungen, das spanische Wort für “Petersilie”—“Perejil” auszusprechen; Trujillo gab vor, die dominikanischen Schwarzen zu schützen—nur die haitianischen Zuckerarbeiter sollten ausgerottet werden.  Man behauptet, dass die Haitianer kein R sprechen konnen. Jedem, der "Pelejil” sagte, wurde der Kopf abgeschlagen. Kein dominikanischer Neger sagt “Perejil.” Schon die spanischen Eroberer nannten Katharina “Catalina.”

Und die Gileaditer namen ein die furt des Jordans fur Ephraim. Wenn nu sprachen die flüchtigen Ephraim / Las mich hin über gehen / So sprachen die Menner von Gilead zu jm / Bistu ein Ephraiter? Wenn er denn antwortet / Nein / So hiessen si jn sprechen / Schiboleth / So sprach er / Siboleth / und kunds nicht recht reden / So griffen si Jn und schlugen Jn an der furt des Jordans / Das zu der zeit von Ephraim fielen zwey und vierzig tausent.” Das Buch der Richter XII, 5,6.

[On October 2, 1937, Trujillo, the Dominican Republic’s Head of State, had 20,000 Negroes murdered. They were coerced by execution commandos to say the Spanish word for parsley: perijl. Trujillo pretended to protect  the Dominican blacks – only the Haitian sugar workers were meant to be exterminated. It was generally believed that the Haitians couldn’t pronounce ‘R.’ Everyone who said ‘pelejil’ was beheaded. None of the Dominican Negroes said perejil. Even the Spanish conquerors called Katharina ‘Catalina.’”

The second paragraph of the footnote is a direct quote from Judges 12: 5-6]

Fichte further elaborates the incident on pp. 46-47:

Am. 2. Oktober 1937 liess Trujillo in 36 Stunden 20,000 Neger mit Macheten ermorden. Es waren Siedler und Saisonarbeiter, die sich diesseits und jenseits der nie eindeutig festgelegten Grenze zwischen der Dominikanisch Republik and Haiti nidergelassen hatten. Die Flüsse farbten sich rot. Strassen und Taler waren mit Leichenteilen voll. Um jedoch vorgeblich die Neger dominikanischer Nationalitat zu schützen, hatte Trujillo den Auftrag erteilt die Schwarzen, die in Haufen zusammengetrieben. Manner, Frauen, Kinder, Vadoupriester, Spiegelmänner, thre Enthauptung erwarten, das Worth “Petersilie”—“Perejil” aussprechen zu lassen. Alle sagten “Pelejil” wie sie es als Kinder oder als Einwanderer gelernt hatten. 40 Dollar zahlte Trujillo später dem haitianischen Staat als Entlelt pro Kopf.

[On October 2, 1937, Trujillo had 20,000 Negroes murdered with machetes. They were settlers and seasonal workers who lived on both sides of the never clearly-defined border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The rivers ran red. Streets and valleys were full of body parts. In order to give the impression of protecting Dominican Negroes, Trujillo gave orders to herd the Blacks into piles, where men, women, children, voodoo priests and minstrels awaited their beheading when forced to say the word “parsley” – perejil. All of them said “pelejil,” the way they learned it as children or immigrants. Trujillo later paid the Haitian government a compensation fee of $40 per head. 

[4] Confirmed by Fred Viebahn in personal communication.

[5] See “Das Heterogene, Das Werk,” Lettre International 27.4 (1994), 60-61.

[6]  According to Webster’s, a short poem of fixed form, French in origin, consisting usually of 5 three-line stanzas and a final 4-line stanza and having only two rhymes throughout. See also Dove’s comments on the formal aspects of “Parsley” in J. Kitchen and S. S. Robin, “A Conversation with Rita Dove” [reprinted in this MAPS site].

[7] The tropes of cane – as in Jean Toomer’s Cane – and of the swamp loom large in African American literature, though with varied, even opposed signification. Whereas in W. E. B. DuBois’s Quest for the Silver Fleece  the swamp figures as uncontrolled chaos that must be plowed under and controlled, for Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) the swamp is the trope of the freedom of erotic love, the antithesis of the bourgeous life and order to which her protagonist flees but to which Du Bois’s characters aspire.

[8]  “Sie sprechen ‘L’ für ‘R.” Sie können nicht richtig schreiben. Sie schreiben “L” für “R.” Das behaupten die weissen Dominakner. Es ist falsch … Alle Dominaker. Die weissen und schwarzen sagen ‘Amol’ statt ‘Amor,’ ‘pol favol’ für ‘por favor’ … wie schon die Spanier statt ‘Katharina’ ‘Catalina’ schrieben.” See Hubert Fichte (1988) Petersille, 46-47.  [“They say ‘L’ for ‘R.’ They can’t write correctly. They write ‘L’ for ‘R.’ This is what the White dominicans claim. It is wrong … all Dominicans, the Whites and the Blacks say ‘Amol’ instead of ‘Amor,’ ‘pol favol’ instead of ‘por favor’ … just like even the Spanish write ‘Catalina’ instead of ‘Katharina.’”]

[9] Paul Celan’s shibboleth “No pasaràn,” also in Spanish. Reads as follows: “Herz: / gib dich auch hier zu erkennen, / hierm in der Mitte des Marktes. / Ruf’s, das Schibboleth, hinaus / in die Fremde der Heimat: / Februar. No pasaràb.” In Eins, quoted by Jacques Derrida (1986), Schibboleth, 58. [“Heart / give yourself to eb recognized here too, / in the middle of the market. / Call it out, the Shibboleth, / in the strangeness of home: / February. No pasarab.”]

From Therese Steffen, Crossing Color: Transcultural Space and Place in Rita Dove’s Poetry, Fiction and Drama (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 56-59.

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