by Rita Dove

(First published in 1983)

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Rita Dove: "On the Genesis of 'Parsley'"

Rita Dove: "On Reading 'Parsley' at the White House" 


1. The Cane Fields

There is a parrot imitating spring

in the palace, its feathers parsley green.

Out of the swamp the cane appears


to haunt us, and we cut it down. El General

searches for a word; he is all the world

there is. Like a parrot imitating spring,


we lie down screaming as rain punches through

and we come up green. We cannot speak an R—

out of the swamp, the cane appears


and then the mountain we call in whispers Katalina.

The children gnaw their teeth to arrowheads.

There is a parrot imitating spring.


El General has found his word: perejil.

Who says it, lives. He laughs, teeth shining

out of the swamp. The cane appears


in our dreams, lashed by wind and streaming.

And we lie down. For every drop of blood

there is a parrot imitating spring.

Out of the swamp the cane appears.


2. The Palace

The word the general's chosen is parsley.

It is fall, when thoughts turn

to love and death; the general thinks

of his mother, how she died in the fall

and he planted her walking cane at the grave

and it flowered, each spring stolidly forming

four-star blossoms. The general


pulls on his boots, he stomps to

her room in the palace, the one without

curtains, the one with a parrot

in a brass ring. As he paces he wonders

Who can I kill today. And for a moment

the little knot of screams

is still. The parrot, who has traveled


all the way from Australia in an ivory

cage, is, coy as a widow, practising

spring. Ever since the morning

his mother collapsed in the kitchen

while baking skull-shaped candies

for the Day of the Dead, the general

has hated sweets. He orders pastries

brought up for the bird; they arrive


dusted with sugar on a bed of lace.

The knot in his throat starts to twitch;

he sees his boots the first day in battle

splashed with mud and urine

as a soldier falls at his feet amazed—

how stupid he looked!—at the sound

of artillery. I never thought it would sing

the soldier said, and died. Now


the general sees the fields of sugar

cane, lashed by rain and streaming.

He sees his mother's smile, the teeth

gnawed to arrowheads. He hears

the Haitians sing without R's

as they swing the great machetes:

Katalina, they sing, Katalina,


mi madle, mi amol en muelte. God knows

his mother was no stupid woman; she

could roll an R like a queen. Even

a parrot can roll an R! In the bare room

the bright feathers arch in a parody

of greenery, as the last pale crumbs

disappear under the blackened tongue. Someone


calls out his name in a voice

so like his mother's, a startled tear

splashes the tip of his right boot.

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.



From Rita Dove, Selected Poems (New York: Pantheon Books), 1983. Copyright © 1980, 1983 by Rita Dove.

Last modified October 5, 2002

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