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.