(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 985 words.)