Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 985
Published during Rita Dove’s tenure as poet laureate, Mother Love shows her grace and skill as a poet. The title announces the subject clearly, but the poems have a range of emotion and observation that surprises the reader continually. The figures behind the poems are Persephone and Demeter, a daughter and mother who learn to be together and apart. Real places and other mothers and daughters blend with the mythic. Stylistically, the poems have a range, but most of them are sonnets—not traditional sonnets, but sonnets nevertheless—and the concluding section is a crown of sonnets associating Demeter and Persephone with a woman’s relationship with the earth that mirrors her, and with the whole mother-daughter cycle of love and loss. The poet herself slips into the cycle too, as another face of woman. Dove comments in her introduction that “The Demeter/Persephone cycle of betrayal and regeneration is ideally suited for this [sonnet] form since all three—mother-goddess, daughter-consort, and poet—are struggling to sing in their chains.”
The first poem, “Heroes,” although not a sonnet, is a nightmarish representation of a woman’s mixed feelings of desperation, responsibility, and guilt. It reads, in fact, like a bad dream—the person addressed as “you” picks a poppy in the field and asks at a nearby house for a jar of water to preserve it, but the woman of the house “starts/ screaming: you’ve picked the last poppy/ in her miserable garden . . .” The main character addressed as “you” starts apologizing, then hits the woman, who falls and strikes her head. The thief has to flee, terrified and ashamed, with the stolen flower. “Oh why/ did you pick that idiot flower?” The poem concludes. “Because it was the last one/ and you knew/ it was going to die.”
The subjects of the book converge in this dreamlike parable: Persephone is picking flowers when abducted, the poet is in some ways a thief, and a woman’s life of mothering and being mothered is fraught with the kind of anxiety that this poem evokes—-terror of harming instead of nurturing, of being blamed for destruction when the intent was to preserve. The poem suggests that a woman cannot avoid her fate as a woman, which is to be nurturer and destroyer.
The power in these poems is in the blend of reality and myth; the sonnet “Missing” is a prime example. The speaker is a daughter who is missing and has various identities: Persephone and any missing daughter (and broadly, any daughter) who at some point in her life is “missing” to her mother. She comments that “nothing marked my ’last/ known whereabouts,’ not a single glistening petal.” She is “returned” and watches her mother’s reception of her explanations: It seems almost as though the speaker is mother and daughter at once, the missing and the one who misses. The poem pulls subtle strings in its analysis of the mother-daughter relationship.
“Persephone Abducted” is also a sonnet, this time describing the abduction of the daughter from an ambiguous point of view, the “we” who may represent the point of view of those left. The poem explores the grief of the mother who cannot fathom her loss. The standard answers for grief do not apply in real cases: “Some say there’s nourishment for pain,/ and call it Philosophy.” However, that is “for the birds,” who are, in fact, the birds of prey—hawk and vulture. There is no answer to loss except endurance and acceptance of fate.
The loss of Persephone and Demeter’s rage and grief blur with other stories of mothers and daughters, evoking all daughters’ departures, whether voluntary or involuntary, temporary or permanent. Reading the collection is painful because mother-love is so intermingled with mother-loss—whether it is the child or the mother who is removed—that its brief patches of sunlight and joy seem few. “Statistic: The Witness” seems to blend Persephone’s story with that of a young woman abducted. The speaker begins “No matter where I turn, she is there/ screaming.” The speaker tries various means of forgetting, but cannot—the tiniest details of the abduction obsess her and will not pass from her mind. The speaker cannot forget, and so she turns to the earth—the ultimate mother whose “green oblivion” will finally obliterate what she has seen. As in other poems, the contemporary is superimposed on the mythic—mother and Mother Earth, the abducted child with Persephone—in order to provide an emotional impression of the terrible fragility of motherhood.
The combination of mythic and ordinary is clearest perhaps in “The Bistro Styx,” a clever poem in five eccentrically rhyming sonnets which details a luncheon meeting between a mother, the speaker, and her “ blighted child,” who has given up her own life to be a muse to her lover, an artist. The daughter gives details of her life in what her mother sees as Hades and misses her mother’s intimate question about her happiness because she is biting into “the starry rose of a fig”—her version of the fatal pomegranate that Persephone tasted, binding her to Pluto for the winter months. This daughter has clearly made her choice; all her mother can do is resign herself. The poem is highly specific and evocative in its description of restaurant and conversation—it takes the title to remind the reader of the mythic grounding.
Dove’s poems in this collection are more open and allusive than in some others and sometimes defy explication, but they communicate with extraordinary clarity to the intuition. The use of the sonnet form is both appropriate and teasing. The poems foreground Dove’s lifelong theme of woman’s experience as mother and daughter. Some of the poems by their evocative detail reflect her commitment to African American issues, but for the most part the themes of Mother Love are universal.