Tuesday, October 09, 2007

"Parsley" and autumn

One of my colleagues, a brilliant scholar and highly esteemed teacher, too, sent an email out early in the semester asking if a few people would be willing to pop into class at seemingly random times throughout the semester and read a poem of their choosing. The poem was designed to go with the reading in question, but not too well. The course was early American Lit, and the poem that I chose was Rita Dove's "Parsley" to go with William Wells Brown's The Escape.

The poem, if you don't know it, is about Dominican general Rafael Trujillo's rumored genocide of black Haitian cane workers in 1937, based on their (in)ability to pronounce the word "perejil" (or parsley) correctly. While her linguistics may be a little shaky, Dove suggests ways that the mispronunciation of the word, connected to class, race, and nation played out. (You can hear the poet read and speak about the poem here.)

Today, I went in and read the poem to the class, wearing a grass-green shirt to match the constant references to green and spring and growth that counter the persistent death images in the poem, a tension that a couple of students brought up. The exercise was fantastic, and it was really great to go in and spend 20 minutes with someone else's class to read and talk about a poem that I have loved since I discovered it as an undergrad (right when Dove was named Poet Laureate). There was a complete absence of pressure to get to a specific point with the discussion, and plenty of time to blend the reasons I love the poem, both critical (its formal precision, its historical rootedness, its dueling senses of the arbitrariness and consequentiality of language) and uncritical (my god, that green, than rhythm, the beauty of that poem about cruel, useless death).

The second part of the poem occurs in "fall, when thoughts turn / to love and death," while the general's green parrot sits in his cage "coy as a widow, practising / spring."

I'm thinking about our autumn here, and a beautiful, amazing thing that's been going on in our back yard. Of course it's been hot here, but the diminished sunshine means the leaves are starting to turn and fall just the same. A week or so ago, I planted a stand of new grass along our back patio, which had been currently rimmed with a two-feet border of lava rock. I dug up the rock, laid down some top soil, and raked in the handfuls of tiny grass seed, and have been watering the dark soil since.

Last Saturday, the grass shoots popped up. Where the dirt had seemed bare the night before, it was now teeming with tiny fragile shoots, green as a parrot, green as spring. The other thing that had happened overnight: a wind had blown through, scattering the backyard with drying and dying leaves.

Hope shoots up, frail and vulnerable, even while the world dies around it.


Sisyphus said...

Ahh, beautiful. Just everything.

I love that poem too, and have never quite figured out how to teach it to students who I assume don't have the context.

I always liked "Spring and Fall" for my fix of beauty and morbidity. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if your presentation would have been any different if you chose to wore a different-colored shirt. I would assume that the poem conveys metaphors about sprouting and that the class can discuss this regardless of the color your shirt happens to be dyed.

Anonymous said...

if you chose to wear, forgive the typo.

jo(e) said...

I love the idea of faculty members popping into class randomly to read poems they love. I might have to incorporate that into my spring class ....

Horace said...

Sisyphus, I actually read it to them first without any context, and then immediately in the discussion, gave them a three minute basic history. It certainly wasn't enough to enable a complex discussion of Dominican history or of this sort of violence, but it did enable a very nice discussion of the poem itself...And if you were to assign students to listen to that NPR link of Dove reading and discussing the poem, I bet you'd be fine.

Anon: I think the green shirt was mostly incidental, but it got me into a frame of mind, and it resonated enough for at least one student that he mentioned it!

And Jo(e), by all accouns it's been very successful fort him: each faculty has brought a different angle to how they discuss the text, and apparently each time it's happened, the level of the classroom discourse has notched up just a bit.

I'm just trying to figure out a way I can get my colleagues to come in and act out scenes from modern drama. We're doing Beckett's Endgame this week, and no one seems to want to come in and do the Nag and Nell scene in the trashcans!