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Dove On Reading "Parsley" at the White House

"Parsley" is based on an historical event that occurred in the Dominican Republic in 1937. Rafael Trujillo, the dictator at the time, selected for execution twenty thousand Haitian blacks who worked side-by-side in the cane fields with Dominicans. He did this in a very bizarre and ultimately creative manner. The Haitians spoke French Creole, in which – unlike Spanish – you don’t roll the r, so the r sounds like an l. Trujillo had all the cane workers pronounce perejil, Spanish for parsley. Those who could not pronounce it correctly – whoever said "pelejil" instead of "perejil" – were Haitian and were executed. That he had them pronounce their own death sentence, this ultimate little twist in cruelty, was what haunted me. . . .

Here I was, at the White House at the highest administrative level of power, and I wanted to talk about the uses to which power has been put. I also wanted to talk about how necessary it is in all avenues of life to be able to imagine the other person. In that poem, I’ve tried to help us understand how Trujillo arrived at this word – not just to say that he was a horrible dictator, but to make us realize that evil can be creative. . . .

. . . It was an after-dinner event, and when I introduced the poem there was a moment of tension in the room – I think people were worried that this was not going to be politically appropriate, but that changed fairly rapidly. Having been invited to the White House, I felt that I should really show what poetry could do and that, in fact, it covers many different aspects of human joy and triumph and tragedy. That was one reason for reading this poem, and in the end I think was very well received.

From James Haba, Ed. The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, Bill Moyers (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 127-128.

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