"I think the worst thing that can happen to a poet is to be self-conscious, to think, "I'm writing a peom," the moment that you're writing a poem. When you get that moment where things begin to click in a poem and you begin to go off in a direction that you didn't know you were going in, you'd better just ride that current as far as it'll take you."
~Rita Dove

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Analysis on "Banneker" and "Parsley"

Scholar Ekaterini Georgoudaki insists of Former Poet Laureate to the United States Rita Dove that, “instead of an obsession with the theme of race, one finds an eagerness, perhaps even an anxiety, to transcend—if not actually to repudiate—black cultural nationalism in the name of more inclusive sensibility” (Georgoudaki 421).  Dove is known for her championing of the under- or misrepresented, often using her poems to enlighten her readers to a new reality of racial equality. Her 1983 poem “Banneker” follows this pattern. Dove isolates the poem’s protagonist and paints a portrait of him as a reflective intellectual when she says “what did he do except lie / under a pear tree,” yet this impression is alternatively contrasted with Dove’s interpretation of the judgment given by “the good people of Baltimore” (Dove “Banneker” 1-2, 5). Tension rises as the poem continues until Banneker fights back. His response is classic Rita Dove—“he penned in his mind / another enflamed letter / to President Jefferson” (Dove “Banneker” 15-17). Dove’s protagonist responds to the underlying racial pressure that carries the poem just as Dove responds in her own life: he writes.
This pattern of literary response can again be seen in Dove’s work “Parsley,” a poem written in 1983 about Dominican dictator Trujillo, a man who orders all those killed who cannot correctly pronounce the word parsley. The test effectively uses language as a means of racially dividing the population; the dialogue of Black Haitians prevents them from the correct pronunciation of any word requiring a rolled “r.” “Banneker” and “Parsley” are similar in that they both offer divided and contrasting viewpoints of their varying subjects, but while “Parsley” ends with the assumption of the horrific massacre that will soon follow in the name of language, “Banneker” ultimately offers a solution to this despair with the writing that Dove’s protagonist employs to articulate his plight.
In order to appreciate the subtlety of Dove’s message on racial integration, the isolated setting she imagines for her protagonist in “Banneker” must first be demonstrated in order to illustrate the segregation that dominates the poem. The subject of her poetry in this instance is Benjamin Banneker, a black scientist from the late 18th century who studied astronomy and was the first black man to both successfully predict a solar eclipse and create an almanac. That her subject is a historical figure should come as no surprise—Dove ultimately wants to comment on the state of race in society and what better way to do this than to analyze the “reactions to this gifted black man who dared to cross social and racial boundaries” (Georgoudaki 422). Her racially marginalized hero provides a historical context that exemplifies the mindset Dove attempts to portray. Georgoudaki explains that, “Dove’s focus on the underside of history, on the overlooked events, on “things which no one will remember but which are just as important in shaping our concept of ourselves and the world we live in as the biggies” (232), is one way in which she expresses her distaste for conventional hierarchies and interpretations” (Georgoudaki 421). The choice of Dove’s subject proves essential for the context of her poem, one in which Banneker “meditate[s] on the heavenly bodies” and “shot at the stars” (Dove “Banneker” 3-4, 37).
Dove’s work “Parsley” similarly focuses upon a piece of history, in this case a historical event that illustrates the broad scope of her attention. She writes not about America within “Parsley” but instead about the terrorization of Black Haitians within the Dominican Republic. In the context of Dove’s inclusiveness, Georgoudaki explains of Dove the ability to showcase “an ever expanding range of reference, the most acute distinctions, and the most subtle shadings of meaning” (Georgoudaki 421). Both poems appear in Dove’s book of poems known as Museum and demonstrate the epitome of the extensive inclusiveness portrayed within the work.
Returning to the protagonist of Banneker, the subject’s portrayal is two-faced: on one side, he can be seen in the innocent light of his actions while on the other, with a racial prejudice that colors his every move. Even his impressive profession comes under scrutiny as his observance of the stars spurs the “good people of Baltimore” to be “shocked and more than / a little afraid” (Dove “Banneker” 5-7). They assume alcohol to be his vice, wondering “why else would he stay out / under the stars all night / and why hadn’t he married?” (Dove “Banneker” 9-11). The combination of this style and mindset persists throughout the poem, Dove alternatively chronicling the personal musings of Banneker himself and the assumptions of his judgmental surroundings. 
Dove employs a similar, albeit more obvious, style to “Parsley” by separating her poem into two works of dissimilar length. In the first six stanzas, the terror of the persecuted Haitians dominates the work and is titled “The Cane Fields.” The second part, “The Palace,” encompasses the savage violence of the general and the alarming casualness with which he decides to kill 20,000 people. Like with “Banneker,” this portrayal lends itself to a demonstration of the misinformed and harsh nature of racial judgment. In “Banneker” this judgment is based upon preconceived notions and perceptions; in “Parsley” the general simply wonders, “who can I kill today” (Dove “Parsley” 30 qtd. in Rubin and Ingersoll 221). He bases his decision not on any informed choice but instead on his own demons, as can be seen when he subsequently calms after his decision because “for a moment / the little knot of screams / is still” (Dove “Parsley” 30-32 qtd. in Rubin and Ingersoll 222). Indeed, throughout the remainder of the poem Dove emphasizes the personal nature of the vendetta the general develops as he remembers “the morning his mother collapsed in the kitchen while baking skull-shaped candies” and subsequently looks out the window to see “fields of sugar cane” (Dove “Parsley” 36-37, 49-50 qtd. in Rubin and Ingersoll 222). The Haitian workers who man these fields have done nothing more than work within the eyesight of the general, calling attention to the fact that it is the general’s imperfection that has caused his prejudice and this divide. Dove thus subtly creates a perspective in which she influences her readers to see the biased nature of each racist incident but allows the reader to develop this opinion on their own—there is no criticism of the “good people of Baltimore” (Dove “Banneker” 5), and Dove humanizes the general with the inclusion that “it is fall, when thoughts turn / to love and death; the general thinks / of his mother” (Dove “Parsley” 21-23 qtd. in Rubin and Ingersoll 222). Yet the implication is clear—both events epitomize the racial inequality that Dove seeks to destroy.
Dove’s emphasis on the need for racial integration stems certainly in part from her own personal experience. The poet grew up in the midst of 1960s America and has written extensively on the Civil Rights movement, in addition to cataloguing the experiences of her maternal grandparents in arguably her most famous work to date, the book of poetry Thomas and Beulah, as they live in the midst of the turn of the 20th century. Yet Dove stresses both poems’ ability to stand alone from her personal context by insisting that “when I started Museum, I was in Europe, and I had a way of looking back on America and distancing myself from my experience…I found historical events fascinating for looking underneath—not for what we always see or what’s always said about a historical event, but for the things that can’t be related in a dry, historical sense” (Dove qtd. in Rubin and Ingersoll 230).
As Dove explains the separation of her own narrative history from that of her poetry, the mention of the “historical sense” of an event as detached from what’s said introduces a deeper layer to the technical device she uses in both poems to involve different speakers and opinions to narrate the work. Dove offers each reader the chance to judge the poems on their own after influencing them by offering a more complete version that what has perhaps been previously logged in history books. In other words, each poem serves to create for its readers a new perception based more all-encompassing accounts in order to serve judgment on each of the protagonists. History, as Dove articulates, “is the way we perceive it, and we do perceive it through words in a way that it’s presented to us in books. And language does shape our perceptions…the way we perceive things is, of course, circumscribed by our ability to express those things” (Dove qtd. in Rubin and Ingersoll 229). 
Perception thus lies at the heart of both “Banneker” and “Parsley.” By changing her readers’ perception of varying examples of racial prejudice, the poems attempt to alter the historical perception of racism. Dove emphasizes the expression of history through books and language in her interview within the Black American Literature Forum to Stan Sanvel Rubin and Earl G. Ingersoll, but this emphasis can be seen within her poetry as well. While “Banneker” and “Parsley” are similar in their general structure and the effect of their division, the conclusion Dove reaches in the end of “Banneker” distinguishes it from the finale of “Parsley.” Within “Banneker,” the poem finishes with the empowerment of Banneker, symbolized by the illustration of a man clutching a rifle and shooting at the stars. This success comes at the culmination of his hypothetical letter to President Jefferson and implies Dove’s approval at his use of language and writing in order to invoke change.
In “Parsley” language also invokes change, but in this instance it is of a much different nature. Here one simple word decides whether or not an individual will face a death penalty of sorts. As a result, the end of the poem concludes with the general’s decision that “he will / order many, this time, to be killed / for a single, beautiful word” (Dove “Parsley” 70-72 qtd. in Rubin and Ingersoll 230). Gone is the hopefulness and empowerment that “Banneker” culminates with, instead leaving the reader with a sense of dread for what will most certainly come next.
While both “Banneker” and “Parsley” are similar in a myriad of ways from their divisive structure to their background in events of historical importance and racial inequality, the variance in their conclusions offers a final distinction necessary in an analysis of Dove’s work. Georgoudaki explains that, “through subtle protest, irony, and her reassessment of Banneker’s life and work, Dove rescues from oblivion and restores this black man’s contribution to American scientific and social progress” (422). Progress in America, it seems, Dove sees as possible. The image of hope that she paints with the ending of “Banneker” lies in stark contrast to that seen in “Parsley,” and the two works’ most glaring dissimilarity comes with the location of their setting. The 1960s America in which Dove grew up was shaped by the influx of imminent change, while the Dominican Republic was marred by civil war and authoritarian rule during the time. Given Dove’s pattern of building upon the historical nature of the events about which she writes and the importance of perception in shaping this history, such context should not be ignored. America has diversity woven into its foundation, and by first indicating the structural and ideological similarities between “Banneker” and “Parsley” and then deconstructing the motivation for their nationalized differences, Rita Dove ultimately offers in “Banneker” her portrayal of hope for the future of racial inclusiveness in America.

Works Cited
Dove, Rita. Museum. Pittsburg: Carnegie Mellon University Press,
 1983. Print.
Rubin, Stan Sanvel, and Earl G. Ingersoll. “A Conversation with
 Rita Dove.” Black American Literature Forum 20.3 (Autumn, 1986):
 227-240. JSTOR. Web. 28 Feb.2012.
Georgoudaki, Ekaterini. “Rita Dove: Crossing Boundaries.” 
 Callaloo 14.2 (Spring 1991):419-433. JSTOR. Web. 27 Feb. 2012.

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