Glück on Persephone and Hades
Posted September 25, 2007on:
In his latest post on poetry and the limiting confines of “identity poetry”, Reginald Shepherd wrote that, Ideally, one writes poetry as an act of exploration, as a venture into the unknown. Louise Glück’s Averno did precisely that on an ambitious scale as, over many poems, she tries to imagine, to ascertain what death is, if the mind and soul existed after death in any form, and questions the conventional hostile division one generally accepts between life and death.
I intend to write at length about four poems, over who knows how many posts, the first two being “A Myth of Innocence” and “A Myth of Devotion”. Averno is split into two parts, the first of which contained one poem, “Persephone the Wanderer“, that directly addressed the Persephone myth. In part two we have three. “A Myth of Innocence” goes further into Persephone’s perspective, the pool at which she spent her last moments before her abduction acting as a focal point for her memories and questions about her situation as Hades’ wife. “A Myth of Devotion” details Hades’ thoughts and preparations for Persephone’s arrival into his world. The differences between each are distinct. Hades is a methodical, wilful ruler who pursues a goal confidently once it is set. Persephone, who undergoes the most change in the story, is more doubtful and hesitant, whose memories of the abduction are incomplete and therefore inadequate as an aid in deciding how she feels about the whole thing. Of all the players in the drama it is she that Glück portrays with a human vulnerability, so much so that I forgot Persephone was the daughter of a goddess, and a deity in her own right. Those words are never used in reference to her here; instead we get the “simple girl” of “A Myth of Innocence”.
One summer she goes into the field as usual
stopping for a bit at the pool where she often
looks at herself, to see
if she detects any changes. She sees
the same person, the horrible mantle
of daughterliness still clinging to her.
The easy, inviting rhythm of the opening sentence, ably mimic the content, complete with an abrupt break when Persephone, meanders into the meadow for the last time. (They are some of my favourite lines to reread for that reason.) As the third poem in part two, the bright setting is a departure from the previous two that depicted night time (“Evening Star”) and scenes of sunset, autumn and winter (“Landscape”). The only thing to mar such pleasantry is Persephone’s feelings of abjection in relation to her mother.
The oppressive, hostile positioning of Demeter in the triangle, and of motherhood in general, is more firmly established in Averno‘s part two. Developed most clearly in the last poem of the collection, a second version of “Persephone the Wanderer”, mother and daughter both see the familial bond as a chain, with the daughter in the reactionary role. For those who have read the Homeric hymn “Demeter”, this is a radically different take on a union that was seen as happy one.
The stifling atmosphere continues in the second stanza as Persephone notes that she is connected to everything in nature, provoked by how close the sun, her uncle Apollon, seems when she looks into the water. One is inclined to assume she said it as a complaint, but Glück surprises. Instead the girl turns “the thought into a prayer./ Then death appears, like the answer to a prayer.” Days later and I still puzzle over this. I assume that it started out as a complaint, but why change it into a prayer and to whom was it directed? Does this give the thought a more positive cast or did she wish to be cut off? At the end of the poem we see that Persephone is no clearer than I am on this point. Glück does hint at it being the latter, as she is wont to do, for the earlier “horrible mantle/of daughterliness” is now set in contrast to the “sunlight flashing on” the “bare arms” of Hades as he whisks her away. But perhaps this is partly Persephone’s emotions too, as she is titillated by Hades defiant actions, as he took her “right there,/with her uncle watching”.
What stands out after this romantic act of derring-do, “the last moment she remembers clearly”, is that that is the last occurrence of sunlight in the poem. In the two stanzas immediately following we get words like “dark god” and “chilling insight”. The thrilling moments are followed by a woman, returning to earth, to stand by that same pool, wholly taken up with the question of her opinion on, her role in the event and whether she is content with her new lot.
She stands by the pool saying, from time to time,
I was abducted, but it sounds
wrong to her, nothing like what she felt.
Then she says, I was not abducted.
Then she says, I offered myself, I wanted
to escape my body. Even, sometimes,
I willed this. But ignorance
cannot will knowledge. Ignorance
wills something imagined, which it believes exists.
It’s lines like the last two sentences there that continually upset my impression that Glück is more or less of the opinion, at least for the sake of the argument presented in the Persephone poems, that she’s a pro-Hades gal, conveyed through a new (to me) characterisation of Demeter and her daughter. If we’re depending on Persephone’s take to guide our conclusions we’re left with a…”well, it’s complicated. I’m complicated.” If we take Glück’s advice and cease to look at them solely as characters and more as “aspects of a…conflict” they represent the soul’s struggle to decide on death’s moral currency in a philosophical war in which the body has deemed it to be evil, repugnant, and the be avoided at all costs
We get to see a more sympathetic view on death in “A Myth of Devotion”, the Greek God’s visage far, far more pleasing than the one Milton imagines in his Paradise Lost.
P.S. Dear readers, please expect posting to keep to about this pace, a post (and maybe one or two more), a week from now on.