The Appeal of What Appalls

August 26, 2013

Contributor’s Marginalia: Joanna Pearson on “Persephone Willing” by Kristin George Bagdanov

Kristin George Bagdanov has written recently on this very blog about the durability of myth. Why are poets so drawn to reexplore myths over and over again? I like Bagdanov’s answer: “That is the power of myth, I suppose—the irresistible call to unfold and refold the shape of it in hopes that by solving its riddle we might somehow solve our own.”

I want to look more at how Bagdanov herself answers this irresistible call in her own poem, “Persephone Willing,” but before I do that, maybe now is a good moment to pause and ask why the Persephone myth in particular stands out as such a salient example—a myth to which writers, perhaps especially women writers, are repeatedly drawn.

Take the opening lines of Eavan Boland’s Persephone poem “The Pomegranate,” which get at something important:

The only legend I have ever loved is
the story of a daughter lost in hell.
And found and rescued there.
Love and blackmail are the gist of it.
Ceres and Persephone the names.
And the best thing about the legend is
I can enter it anywhere. And have.

And thus we enter a poem that is, I think, in no small part about the versatility of the Persephone myth. One can indeed enter it anywhere. And maybe it’s partly this versatility that has made this myth such tempting fruit (pardon the pun) to so many women poets.

The versatility doesn’t end there. Why Persephone? On some level, maybe it’s because this myth is the ultimate sex and death story, sexual knowledge marking the end of childhood and serving as a harbinger of mortality. The ultimate loss of innocence. Then, there’s the proto-vampiric aspect. Hades is the original bad boy, the dark brooder with a sweet ride and a pack of unfiltered cigarettes.

But unlike Edward Cullen, death has real teeth here. This story of kidnapping and (partial) return is, upon closer inspection, actually the stuff of nightmares. And yet it’s a darkness we can’t seem to turn away from, horrified but morbidly fascinated by news stories of women locked in basements…(Tangent alert: Maybe this specific appeal is similar to that of watching Law & Order: SVU, which Jezebel blogger Lindy West likens to pressing on a bruise.)

Of course, there’s also the horrid, raging mother-loss of a child. Pile onto this the countless interpretations, themes ready to be plucked like arils: maternal anger, anorexia, loss of innocence, sexual violence, seasonal rebirth…And you’ve got poetic territory fertile enough to be please Demeter.

Partly what I love is the sheer profusion of Persephone poems—many of which have indeed been written by women. There’s Boland’s, which I like because she explores not so much the experience of Persephone herself, but rather that of Demeter—she senses that ache of the mother who is seeing her daughter just at that precipice of adulthood, the precipice of loss. There are many others too. (Want proof? Poets.org practically has a “Persephone” poem section. And I confess: I’ve even tried it myself.) My absolute favorite, though, has always been A.E. Stallings’ “First Love: A Quiz,” which is both formally ingenious and delivers this sucker-punch of a final stanza:

The place he took me to:
a. was dark as my shut eyes
b. and where I ate bitter seed and became ripe
c. and from which my mother would never take me wholly back, though she wept and walked the earth and made the bearded ears of barley wither on their stalks and the blasted flowers drop from their sepals
d. is called by some men hell and others love
e. all of the above

Now I’m adding to my list of admired Persephone poems Bagdanov’s “Persephone Willing,” which is proof once again of the myth’s flexibility, as well as of Bagdanov’s sharp poetic intuition. The poem begins:

She tired of how a warm breeze
unsettles a mood. The pain

of ripeness, the peach always ending
in pit. An eternity of flesh that keeps turning

to stone. Better to be the stone, to find the end
of things before it found her.

And herein Bagdanov finds within this multifaceted myth a poem about the fear of impermanence and the art of preemption. Here is a Persephone who will trade flowers that will only inevitably wilt on the vine for the ability to “know the hollow without suffering/the echo’s fade.” This is a Persephone who signs up for the Underworld willingly so as to bypass endings of slow decay. (Notice the rhyme here of “fade” and “shade” which Bagdanov, appropriately enough, buries within her lines.)

The poem’s quiet language is clean and understated. I can hear Bagdanov’s attention to sound within her free verse (note the repeated assonance of the short “i” sound throughout: pit, ripped, hibiscus, narcissus, Styx, hip, pith…) And finally, there’s that last line, with the “pulp”/”pulse” equivalence, which is hauntingly dead-on.

There’s a reason we poets can’t seem to let go of Persephone, and Bagdanov understands this. It’s an [under]world to which we can’t help but return.

Joanna Pearson

Joanna Pearson’s first book of poetry, Oldest Mortal Myth, was selected for the 2012 Donald Justice Poetry Prize.  She lives in Baltimore where she works as a resident physician.

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