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MOTHER LOVE: MOTHER LOVE

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 anotherand
longerrendering 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. Doves Demeter can emerge (even curse) in
Doves 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 mothers 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 mothers worry, she writes, I was
doing what she didnt need to know. She was, in fact, tempting fate, testing her ripeness
against the worlds (mans) 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 Mothers bosom (Demeters 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.

Doves 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 Harringtons 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
possessed, Demeter and Persephone, but also the tension of grammar such as that held
in the books very title.

Mother love is at once the special kind of love that only mothers have to offer and the
love for mothers that children, especially daughters, harbor. Mother Love is also arguably
the name of the presiding deity who hovers over this collection, protecting it while gracing
its readers.

One of the universal dualisms coursing through the collection is that of innocence and
experience. Afield connects this theme to the prevailing myth especially well. Keeping the
imagery within Demeters province, Dove writes of the breach in the green that
Persephone seems to seek, though knowing Hades possessiveness. Like the dazzling
effulgence of spring, emotional truth is hard to put in clear focus:

Like these blossoms, white sores


burst upon earths ignorant flesh, at first sight
everything is innocence
then its itch, scratch, putrescence.
Yet the poem does its work without using either the womens names or any other
necessary dependence on allusion. Its power of truth overrides its inspiration.

Mother Love is partitioned into seven sectionsan unusual and perhaps unfortunate
amount of chaptering for a collection that is relatively slim to begin with. The seven
numbered section dividers, with their seven blank versos, promote a sense of the project
being leavened or padded. Part 1 is a single twenty-eight-line poem called Heroes that
serves as a poetic introduction to the question of how myths come about and how bringing
life and dealing death may occur in the same act. It is a fine, mysterious little poem in
lightly rhymed triplets that demonstrates Doves formal skill. Probably it would function
better if it immediately followed Doves prose foreword without the fussiness and
interference of the section divider.

Two other parts, 3 and 7, are also single poems. In these cases, each is a long poem
covering several pages and thus each has a heft that allows a more satisfactory balance
with the books other sections, which range from four to twelve poems. Moreover, these
two poemsPersephone in Hell and Her Islandare major achievements. They show
Doves ability to sustain complex meditations on womanhood, meditations that ride along
gripping narrative trails. While the first is made up of numbered segments of varying length
and techniquesome of them involving two voicesthe second is a sequence of
unnumbered sonnets. Some might question the authenticity of these fourteen-line units as
sonnets without denying them effectiveness as building blocks in Doves accomplished
long poem.

The other sections are put together with a practiced hand, individual poems deepened by
the context Dove finds for them. Two of the poems in part 4 are marked by an earthy wit
that contributes a delightful note to Doves otherwise somber concerns. Hades Pitch and
The Bistro Styx add humorous tones to stories in which mothers suffer (or are imagined
suffering) the inevitable foolishness of wayward daughters. Between these two, Dove
locates two other poems that modulate and sober up that laughter without undermining it.
These are among Doves sonnets, though Wiederkehr has no rhyme scheme, has
irregular line lengths, and divides evenly (and unconventionally) into two seven-line
stanzas, while Wiring Home is made of seven loose couplets.

In her foreword, Dove makes a case for her use of the sonnet in handling the myth of
Demeter and Persephone. Acknowledging that her sonnets are irregular (they do not
follow standard Petrarchan or Shakespearean schemes), she offers that such variation
represents a world gone awry, an appropriate sonnet style for the violated world of the
mythic story. She also claims to enjoy how the sonnet comforts even while its prim
borders . . . are stultifying; one is constantly bumping up against Order. Perhaps it is the
very process of playing with the sonnets strictures and gauging the appropriate license
that has helped Dove find the voice (or voices) and shapes she needs to infuse life into
materials that have often generated hackneyed performances. Her sonnet variations are
another source of tension: one of tradition versus innovation, collectivity versus
individuation.

Doves orchestration of contemporary idiom, loose sonnet shapes, and the informing myth
of Demeter and Persephone can be seen working most expressively in a poem such as
Missing:

I am the daughter who went out with the girls,


never checked back in and nothing marked my last
known whereabouts, not a single glistening petal.
Horror is partial; it keeps you going. A lost

child is a fact hardening around its absence,


a knot in the breast purring Touch, and I will
come true. I was returned, I watched her

watch as I babbled It could have been worse. . . .


Who can tell
what penetrates? Pity is the brutal
discipline. Now I understand she can never
die, just as nothing can bring me back
I am the one who comes and goes;

I am the footfall that hovers.


The formal and thematic concerns of Mother Love give it a unity that remains unusual in
American collections, and in this case it is a unity that never seems forced. Such focus is
not new to Dove, as her Thomas and Beulah volume (1986) makes clear. (The integrity of
Doves earlier collections may account for Doves decision to reproduce three of them in
full in her 1993 Selected Poems.) Dove may be one of those few poets who conceive of
the book of poems as an integrated artwork; she pursues and achieves a larger goal than
the hindsight manipulation of miscellaneous poems into some kind of coherent gathering.

Since her earliest successes in poetry, Dove has developed into a rounded literary artist.
She has a collection of stories, a novel, and a verse drama to her credit. Her pursuit of
mastery in the range of genres works toward enriching her poetry. In Mother Love,
narrative and dramatic elements are stronger than ever, without a sacrifice of lyricism or
any other poetic element. Constantly setting new challenges for herself and constantly
growing, Rita Dove has more than fulfilled the expectations of those who recognized her
talent near the outset of her career. Few writers have responded so industriously and so
positively to the burden of early acclaim.


Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, May 1, 1995, p. 1547.

The Christian Science Monitor. September 7, 1995, p. 13.

Ebony. L, May, 1995, p. 20.

Essence. XXVI, September, 1995, p. 73.

The New York Times Book Review. C, September 17, 1995, p. 41.

The New Yorker. LXXI, May 15, 1995, p. 90.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, March 27, 1995, p. 79.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXI, Autumn, 1995, p. SS136.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, July 30, 1995, p. 8.

Writer. CVIII, January, 1995, p. 14.