Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572

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The “Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” even in its disturbing account of Persephone’s rape, gives the starring role to the goddess of agriculture. Dove expands Demeter’s role, adding psychological layers to the goddess-mother’s love and loss. The poet, however, also develops Persephone’s and Hades’s characters, giving them prominent first-person voices throughout the collection. These revisions of the myth serve Dove’s thematic purposes. With this triad, the poet can emphasize contradictions in and pressures on maternal love, mother-daughter relationships, and adulthood.

One such contradiction, the narcissism of all three characters, is Dove’s covert psychological gesture to the account in the “Homeric Hymn to Demeter” in which a narcissus flower attracts first Persephone and then Hades to Persephone. Certainly, Demeter’s maternal pride matches the self-absorption of both Persephone and Hades. The result is a triangle of willfulness, uneasiness, and power struggles. Demeter, for example, will not accept her daughter’s sexuality or autonomy. The goddess is also a chronic worrier. Persephone, even as she gains independence and tries to shake off her mother’s worry, is bored and numb. The latter problem also characterizes Hades and the detachment with which Hades and Persephone approach each other. In fact, all three characters in this sequence reflect numbed states of waiting: “It’s an old drama, waiting./ One grows into it,/ enough to fill the boredom . . ./ it’s a treacherous fit.

Finding a way out of this treacherous, three-way fit is the goal of Dove’s account of the myth. Dove allows Persephone to articulate that difficulty: “For a moment I forgot which way to turn”; “Which way is bluer?”; and “And if I refuse this being/ which way then?” The quest is for light and enlightenment, and, ironically, Persephone approaches it when she raises to Hades the glass of chartreuse that he compares to “un mirage,” which she coyly translates as “a trick of light.” As their sexual encounter begins, she reflects confusion in whispered questions to herself (“if I whispered to the moon,/ if I whispered to the olive/ which would hear me?”), which are patterned on the opening line of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1923 Duineser Elegien (Duino Elegies, 1930): “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders?”)

By invoking (in whispers, not screams) the virgin goddesses of the moon (Artemis) and the olive (Athena)—both with contradictory roles, both cruel when offended—Persephone confirms her divided mind. Still, in her charged last question—“who has lost me?”—she moves toward an unexpected nexus where selfhood, sexuality, an adult relationship, and her mother’s advice (“be still she whispers/ and light will enter”) meet and where understanding can begin.

Persephone is on her way to becoming the perennial traveler-mediator between darkness and light, fragmentation and harmony, and interior and exterior worlds. However, she must begin with an interior journey. As Dove explained in a 1996 interview, “I would like to remind people that we have an interior lifeand without that interior life, we are shells, we are nothing.” The “Persephone in Hell” poems demonstrate Dove’s wise advice. The reader is pulled into a modern interior of the Demeter myth, into its underworld of change, chance, sexuality, grief, willfulness, violence, and love. It is only within the interior that poetry and myth reveal their secret: The underworld teaches the reader the way back to the seasons of life, seasons transformed by the journey.