The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 700

“Persephone in Hell,” a sequence of seven poems, forms the third of seven sections in Dove’s collection Mother Love. The sequence and the collection explore the Greek myth of Demeter: With almost no witnesses and with the permission of her father Zeus, the supreme Olympian deity, Persephone has been abducted and raped by Hades, the ruler of the underworld and her uncle, who subsequently makes her his queen. Unable to find her daughter, an angry and inconsolable Demeter wanders among mortals, disguised as an elderly woman. She comes to Eleusis, where she meets the four lovely daughters of Celeus, king of Eleusis, and his wife Metaneira. Demeter, at Metaneira’s urging, becomes nurse to the couple’s only son, the infant Demophoön. Determined to make the boy immortal, each night Demeter secretly places him in the fire. One night Metaneira discovers this and screams in terror, thus thwarting Demeter’s plans. An angry, radiant goddess reveals herself and disappears, but not before ordering the people of Eleusis to build a temple and altar in her honor and promising to teach them rites that became known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. Still inconsolable, Demeter lets the crops die and refuses solace from the other Olympian gods and goddesses. Eventually Zeus agrees to return Persephone, but because she has eaten pomegranate seeds offered by Hades, she must spend fall and winter with her husband and spring and summer with her mother, thus ensuring the seasons, agriculture, and partial consolations.

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The focus of “Persephone in Hell” is the riveting episode with which the ancient account of the myth, the “Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” begins: the abduction and rape of Persephone by Hades. Dove’s treatment of this episode is innovative and complex. The former U. S. poet laureate (1993-1995) announces its complexity in the section’s epigraph by American expatriate poet H. D. (Hilda Doolittle): “Who can escape life, fever,/ the darkness of the abyss?/ lost, lost, lost . . .” In the sequence’s opening poem, radical innovations appear, including a modern Persephone, a nineteen-year-old American “Girdedwith youth and good tennis shoes.” Her first-person voice ushers the reader into the sequence’s setting: Hell is a bone-chilling October in Paris, the City of Lights; the city, Persephone notes, of detritus and neon-lit underground sewers; and the city of Our Lady (Notre Dame Cathedral) to whose heavy presence, like the mental presence of her mother Demeter, Persephone keeps turning her back. In the fifth poem, another innovation appears: Hades is a sardonic, older Frenchman, a habitual seducer whose character borders on caricature.

The mood of the sequence’s first six poems combines ennui and irritation. Both underscore the detachment with which Persephone thinks of her mother who “with her frilly ideals//couldn’t know what [Persephone] was feeling;//I was doing everything and feeling nothing.” Ennui characterizes the way in which Persephone and Hades individually assess their surroundings and people. Both are especially irritated by ineffectual artists and intellectuals, whom Hades compares metaphorically to a “noisy zoo”; Persephone responds, “let this party/ swing without me.” Within this dissatisfaction, Dove reconstructs their encounter.

The sequence is crafted as a three-stage rite of passage for Persephone: fledgling initiatives/waiting, the contact, the life-defining initiation. In the first four poems, Persephone experiments with sexual and social relationships, which remain superficial. She is curious but detached, a young woman who knows only “seven words of French,” the language of Hell and adulthood. The one who will teach Persephone that language appears in the fifth poem, a monologue delivered by a bored Hades whose “divertissement” (Persephone, as it turns out) will be a matter of chance: “The next one through that gate,/ woman or boy, will get/ the full-court press of my ennui.” The sixth poem captures Persephone and Hades’s first meeting and conversation. Both realize that Persephone does not belong there, but, as she inadvertently points out, the “Midnight./ The zero hour” of their encounter has arrived. In the sequence’s final poem, Dove alternates their voices as each approaches their pivotal sexual encounter. Persephone, for example, recognizes that a part of her “had been waiting,” to which Hades counters, “I am waiting/ you are on your way.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 329

The “Persephone in Hell” sequence is linked by theme rather than form. Dove gives each of the seven poems a distinctive format, using the varied forms, lines, quotations, and typography for crucial purposes. They identify multiple voices and personas that move in and out of the poems. They also intensify a driving sense of order that moves below the seemingly random surface of Persephone’s experiences and responses. The result is an intense unit. While none of the seven poems of “Persephone in Hell” is in the sonnet form, the closely linked thematic unit suggests that Dove may have had in mind a seven-poem form known as a “crown of sonnets.” Whatever the case, “Persephone in Hell” ends with Persephone being claimed sexually as the queen of the underworld.

Surprising appearances of formal language in the dominant informality of the sequence support its unsettling effect. In addition, although Dove occasionally uses irregular end or internal rhymes, most of the lines are unrhymed. This decision, as well as the poet’s mixtures of other devices, emphasizes the poems’ nuanced informality. For example, Dove frequently sets up terse catalogs of details. Just as often, she uses a consonant emphasis, such as s, to carry a barrage of details and partial and irregular rhymes: “Through the gutters, dry rivers/ of the season’s detritus./ Wind soughing the plane trees./ I command my knees to ignore the season/ as I scuttle over stones.” Similes, used sparingly but strategically, combine tension and details. Typical examples include Persephone’s description of Paris’s sewer system (“like some demented plumber’s diagram/ of a sinner’s soul”) and her initial impression of Hades (“He inclines his head, rather massive,/ like a cynical parrot.”) A more important device is Dove’s repetitions of images and emphases. To trace, for example, her use of Africans, “way,” light/dark, Mother/Our Lady, food and drinks, and autumnal references is to study the poet’s craft and the poems’ themes.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 133

Bellafante, Ginia. “Poetry in Motion.” Time, May 31, 1993, 73.

Carlisle, Theodora. “Reading the Scars: Rita Dove’s The Darker Face of the Earth.” African American Review 34, no. 1 (Spring, 2000): 135-150.

Conde, Maryse, and Rita Dove. Interview by Mohamed B. Taleb-Khyar. Callaloo 14, no. 2 (Spring, 1991): 347.

Dove, Rita, “A Poet’s Topics: Jet Lag, Laundry, and Making Her Art Commonplace.” Interview by Felicity Barringer. The New York Times, June 20, 1993, p. E7.

Ingersoll, Earl G., ed. Conversations with Rita Dove. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.

Lofgren, Lotta. “Partial Horror: Fragmentation and Healing in Rita Dove’s Mother Love.” Callaloo 19, no. 1 (1996): 135-142.

Pereira, Malin. Rita Dove’s Cosmopolitanism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Righelato, Pat. “Geometry and Music: Rita Dove’s Fifth Sunday.” Yearbook of English Studies 31 (2001): 62-73.

Vendler, Helen. “A Dissonant Triad (Henri Cole, Rita Dove, August Kleinzahler).” Parnassus 16, no. 2 (1990): 391.

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