Every editor of a literary journal has perused scores of poems that mine the Demeter and Persephone story. Perhaps only the Orpheus and Eurydice tale is more favored by poets. Most such poems are atrocious retellings of one or another portion of the story; many are dramatic monologues giving voice to the plight of mother or daughter. Few of these treatments rise to respectability. The hold this myth has on contemporary women poets is, understandably, a tenacious one. For many, however, tapping this ancient story seems an obligation, a rite of passage, or at worst a poetic ticket to be punched. Too often, poets are content with mere allusiveness, letting the assumed power of the allusion do its own work. Often, identification takes place on only an intellectual level; personal passion or involvement in the issues conveyed by the myth is absent. Some freshness of approach, at least, is needed to awaken the myth from many stale rehearsals.
When a major voice (Pulitzer Prize winner and U.S. poet laureate) builds a book around this myth, one can ask if the decision was taken on a dare (perhaps a self-induced challenge) or was it the consequence of a genuine need to wrestle with such material. Rita Dove, in Mother Love, runs the risk of trying her readers’ patience with yet another—and longer—rendering of the Demeter and Persephone saga. Somehow, she survives the material, survives because she has found a way to transform it into something deeply personal and newly relevant.
Most poets working the myth of Demeter and Persephone make the strategic mistake of trying to enter a nonexistent past. They imagine the women as historical characters and then attempt to inhabit those characters. Yet the power of myth resides in its psychic authenticity and its timelessness. It is not that one can go “back there” (there is no “there”) but that the myth can permeate the present. Dove’s Demeter can emerge (even curse) in Dove’s contemporary idiom. The poet allows herself to be inhabited. At the same time, her craft and her assured persona allow control: She is both possessed and possessor.
Dove projects herself into two roles in another way as well. Like many women of her age, Dove is a daughter and has a daughter. Looking backward and forward in time, looking squarely at herself, she conjures the reciprocal emotions of motherhood and daughterhood. Yet she finds in the dynamic of Demeter and Persephone not a simple duality or interdependence but a “cycle of betrayal and regeneration,” a pattern she understands is acted out in the daily life of mortals.
In some of these poems, the Demeter side of Dove (and the contemporary women for whom she finds a voice) knows that every time a daughter walks out the door, the abduction by and to Hades begins again. The passage of time itself insists on the loss of the daughter. The mother’s seeking is both in the world and within herself. Demeter has the eternity of Olympus, but she will give it up to have her daughter back. At the same time, this archetypal mother knows that her daughter must make her way in the world—with all of its attendant risks. Womanhood is the crown and crime of girlhood.
The Persephone aspect of Dove recalls, at twenty, enjoying the risks of visiting Paris (in “Persephone in Hell”). Though she felt the power of her mother’s worry, she writes, “I was doing what she didn’t need to know.” She was, in fact, tempting fate, testing her ripeness against the world’s (man’s) treachery. She needed to know it and survive it. Most Persephones do not wholeheartedly resist abduction, and like the figure in the myth, they do not ever fully return to Mother’s bosom (Demeter’s world of abun- dance) but live a season each year in the world of decay. Dove taps these and other aspects of the myth, but she does so as a woman living fully in her half of the twentieth century.
Dove’s poetic constructions, simple in many ways, are filled with the tensions that come from smoothing, roughing, and smoothing her material over and over again. Her work habits, deftly illustrated in Walter Harrington’s essay “A Narrow World Made Wide” (Washington Post Magazine, May 7, 1995), include a close examination of word combinations, line breaks, and stanza divisions with an eye to uncovering yet unrecognized meanings. The poems in this collection reveal that splendid interplay of craft and chance, deliberation and spontaneity, and through that interplay Dove discovers and releases the rich ambiguities and multiplicities of self and meaning: not only possessor and...
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