blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "Parsely" and on Dove's Redefining of the Lyric

Helen Vendler

In "Parsley," Dove’s penetratingly imaginative mind took on the task of trying to conjecture why Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic, ordered … fifty thousand migrant Haitian cane cutters killed because they could not pronounce the Spanish r properly: the test was the word perejil, or parsley. The poem … summons up both the exhausted workers (in a quasi-villanelle) and the demented Trujillo (in a quasi-sestina); their vocabularies intertwine, so that we see that murderer and victims share a world. In her sinisterly plausible account of Trujillo’s decision for genocide, Dove interrogates the extent to which aesthetic or libidinal attachment to language (Trujillo’s obsession with "correct" Spanish, which he associates with his dead mother) can itself – as a poet knows – become vicious. Dove’s rebuke of others are believable because they are also warnings to herself.

… The ambitions of lyric are no less serious – though they are sometimes thought to be – than those of drama or epic. … Technically, her poems "work" by their fierce concision and by an exceptional sense of rhythmic pulse. (Dove used to play the cello, still plays the viola da gamba, and is a trained singer). No matter how painful her stories, no matter how sharp-edged her lines, her poems fall on the ear with solace. … The anxiety that manifests itself as her taut control has so far precluded certain forms of the comic, the genial, or the insouciant; but her poems know reproach, irony, and a terse impatience very well. They also know a surprising surrealism, which turns out to be realism:

From the beautiful lawnmower
float curls of evaporated gasoline;
the hinged ax of the butterfly pauses.

The beautiful lawnmower? The ax of the butterfly? By such almost assaultive means, Dove trains her reader into original perceptions.

From Helen Vendler, Soul Says: On Recent Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1995), 161, 165-66.

Helen Vendler

… Poems of victimage, told from the viewpoint of the victim alone, are the stock-in-trade of mediocre protest writing, and they appear regularly in African-American literature. The position of victimage, and victimage alone, seems imaginatively insufficient to Dove, since it takes in only one half of the poem’s world. That half has of course great pathos, and we hear that pathos in the song she writes for the Haitian cane-cutters. … [Vendler quotes the first section of "Parsley."] …Dove characteristically opens a poem with an oblique and unexplained sentence. The ineluctable appearance of the fast-growing sugar-cane, no matter how often it is cut down, is enacted, musically, in the exhausting preciseness of the phrase "the cane appears"; but its recurrent drone is sharply countered by the menacing appearance of the "General," who, so to speak, will not permit the natural (if enslaving) villanelle-song to continue.

… [Vendler quotes from the second section of "Parsley."] The General’s sense of certain Spanish words has been permanently eroticized by their association with his mother, and, as obsessed by language as any poet, he kills to defend his mother’s honor. Rita Dove, in a feat of sympathetic imagination, enters the white dictator’s mind, and conjectures a sinisterly plausible motive for the mass executions of blacks based on a bizarre word-test. Dove’s stanzaic imitation of Trujillo’s disintegrating yet fanatically circling monologue is a wonderful piece of prosodic mortise-and-tenon work.

from  "Rita Dove: Identity Markers" (Chapter 3) in The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1995), 72, 73, 75.

Return to Rita Dove