Rita Dove, long an icon in the poetry world, creates memorable poems that often tie to history: personal or in the public domain. Her poetry has often spoken to me directly, uncovering some undiscovered thing that I wouldn’t have thought of in a million years. These two poems, one personal and the other public-historical (a note follows with context, and it is a powerful portrayal of human oppression and cruelty), are each unforgettable in different ways.
“I have been a stranger in a strange land”
By Rita Dove
Life’s spell is so exquisite, everything conspires to break it.
It wasn’t bliss. What was bliss
but the ordinary life? She’d spend hours
in patter, moving through whole days
touching, sniffing, tasting . . . exquisite
housekeeping in a charmed world.
And yet there was always
more of the same, all that happiness,
the aimless Being There.
So she wandered for a while, bush to arbor,
lingered to look through a pond’s restive mirror.
He was off cataloging the universe, probably,
pretending he could organize
what was clearly someone else’s chaos.
That’s when she found the tree,
the dark, crabbed branches
bearing up such speechless bounty,
she knew without being told
this was forbidden. It wasn’t
a question of ownership—
who could lay claim to
such maddening perfection?
And there was no voice in her head,
no whispered intelligence lurking
in the leaves—just an ache that grew
until she knew she’d already lost everything
except desire, the red heft of it
warming her outstretched palm.
By Rita Dove
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.
NOTES: On October 2, 1937, Rafael Trujillo (1891-1961), dictator of the Dominican Republic, ordered 20,000 blacks killed because they could not pronounce the letter “r” in perejil, the Spanish word for parsley.