April 8, 2009

Rita Dove: “Persephone, Falling”

Posted in Poetry at 9:00 am by The Lizard Queen

Persephone, Falling

One narcissus among the ordinary beautiful
flowers, one unlike all the others! She pulled,
stooped to pull harder—
when, sprung out of the earth
on his glittering terrible
carriage, he claimed his due.
It is finished. No one heard her.
No one! She had strayed from the herd.

(Remember: go straight to school.
This is important, stop fooling around!
Don’t answer to strangers. Stick
with your playmates. Keep your eyes down.)
This is how easily the pit
opens. This is how one foot sinks into the ground.

—Rita Dove, 1995



  1. DavidD said,

    It is certainly intentional that the author here presents two ways to a bad ending. The first part describes how a person will be picked off by some predator if she is too different. The second part describes how following the rules can make her disappear into conformity. Hmmm, I wonder what she thought was the best way, or did this poem come out of her frustration about not knowing a best way?

    My dad told a story that ends with the aphorism, “If you’re happy in a dung heap, keep your mouth shut.” He liked that. I think he liked that at a concrete level, that’s certainly good advice. Yet as a metaphor, it wasn’t the right advice for him. His greatest misery in life came from not knowing how to talk to my mother. So he kept his mouth shut, until he couldn’t, which didn’t go well, but it was far from having dung shoved in his mouth or being carried away by Hades. He needed to talk more, but he had this story that helped him resist that.

    This is something I don’t like about metaphors. Where are you starting from? Are you expressing yourself too much or too little? Are you conforming too much or too little? Are the rules you do follow the good rules or the bad rules? Depending on such things, certain metaphors that express wisdom for others are just going to reinforce behavior that is harming your life.

    This is one reason that poetry alone is not the best psychotherapy. Any path can be justified metaphorically, but what metaphor do you really need? Only a wise and experienced observer can tell you.

    I’d rather analyze my life without metaphors at all. Then once I understand the direction I need to go, a metaphor can summarize that, even conflicting metaphors like this poem.

    I have a metaphor like that. In my youth there were a number of games based on pushing a metal ball uphill with two rods. It took practice. You had to get the ball going by pulling the rods beneath the ball apart. If you did nothing more, the ball would fall off, and you get a terrible score. You got a better score if you squeezed the rods after the ball started rolling, pushing the ball uphill. That was easy to do for a short way, where you could then drop the ball for a low score, but if you learned to put exactly the right amount of pressure on the ball, it was amazing how far it would scoot, all the way to a maximum score.

    Many dualities can be modeled this way, individuality vs. conformity, risk vs. safety. As any good Buddhist knows, the best way between these is the middle way. Yet the image I have of the ball and the rods is more than just the middle way between one rod and the other. It’s that there is an ideal, dare I say a perfect way, somewhere along the spectrum between the two absolutes, where the payoff is huge.

    I’ve never written a poem about such a perfect way, even though I have written poems that express the extreme of some emotion or phenomenon, even conflicting as they are here. It’s so hard even in prose to get across that there aren’t just three ways, much less two, but many, and experience picks out how to navigate that. The facts of where one really is in one’s life matter a lot more in that than the metaphors one has chosen, maybe to one’s detriment. Yet facts aren’t everything.

    You just had to see the look on my older brother’s face when I beat him at the above game, not just once, but again and again and again. It wasn’t close. I had learned how to hold the rods perfectly. He hadn’t. He wouldn’t play that game with me again. That wasn’t as good an outcome as if he had let me continue to beat him, this being the first game in my life where I could beat him consistently, but it was good enough to remember gleefully.

    There is victory as well as defeat. Hades was not completely victorious. Persephone was not completely defeated. Actually if I took time to reread this myth, maybe Persephone wasn’t defeated at all, but found the perfect path for her situation, something that made her say “Yes!” to her having a victory over Hades that was as much as my victory over my brother, far short of complete victory but still worth it.

    What does any of that mean to someone else? That’s the problem. To anyone else, all of that is metaphor, and metaphor can be exactly the wrong message. Both poems and prose deserve warning labels this way.

  2. Evil Bender said,

    This poem is breathtaking. Thanks for sharing!

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