Glück: Teen Sex, Rape and Persephone

Daniel Gabriel Rossetti, “Prosperpine” (Latin name for Persephone)

Friday

I’m falling in love with the Persephone poems of Louise Glück, the recent Nobel literature laureate. “Persephone the Wanderer” is a nuanced exploration of explosive issues regarding teenage sexuality and rape.

In the myth, earth goddess Demeter threatens to kill all vegetation unless Hades returns her daughter, whom he has abducted. (In high school Latin I learned about word “rapere,” meaning “to seize” and the origin of our word rape, in conjunction with this story.) Demeter gets only half of what she wants as Persephone, because she has eaten food in the underworld (six pomegranate seeds), can return for only half the year. Demeter’s mourning during those months explains fall and winter.

The poem begins with the mother’s perspective. Her scorched earth response to Persephone’s abduction hurts everyone. This, the poet explains, is “consistent with what we know of human behavior.” While I’m not sure why Glück calls this “negative creation,” I’ll buy her subsequent observation:

Human beings take profound satisfaction
in doing harm, particularly
unconscious harm

This is our first glimpse into Glück’s readiness to point out unpleasant parts of ourselves, which can be hidden under seemingly virtuous desires. Demeter is right to be upset, but does she relish her anger a bit too much? Does she enjoy lashing out?

The poem moves into an even more controversial female emotion when it raises the possibility of complicity. Did Persephone “cooperate in her rape,” the poet asks before turning to a more acceptable possibility:

[O]r was she drugged, violated against her will,
as happens so often now to modern girls.

While Glück says that scholars debate the issue, her use of the word “pawed” suggests that their motives may be more lascivious and less academic than they would admit:

Persephone's initial
sojourn in hell continues to be
pawed over by scholars who dispute
the sensations of the virgin…

The story doesn’t end when Persephone returns home since, no longer a virgin, she bears a mark of shame. The red juice of the pomegranate seeds reminds the poet of Hawthorne’s scarlet letter:

As is well known, the return of the beloved
does not correct
the loss of the beloved: Persephone

returns home
stained with red juice like
a character in Hawthorne—

That’s not the end of the story, however. Glück is noteworthy for her extended meditations so that one is never sure where her poems are heading. Mentioning the word “home” gets her thinking along Thomas Wolfe lines that one can’t go home again. Persephone’s encounter with Hades means that, henceforth, she will become a wanderer, “at home nowhere”:

I am not certain I will
keep this word [“home”]: is earth
"home" to Persephone? Is she at home, conceivably,
in the bed of the god? Is she
at home nowhere?

Her encounter with Hades has changed everything. Home can no longer be the innocence of childhood, a meadow filled with daisies where she sang “her maidenly songs”:

When death confronts her, she has never seen
the meadow without the daisies.
Suddenly she is no longer
singing her maidenly songs
about her mother's
beauty and fecundity. Where
the rift is, the break is.

To describe Persephone’s encounter with sexuality as “in the bed of the god” raises the issue of sexuality’s power, how it can seem to take over one’s entire being.  That the god’s “rape” might not be entirely objectionable is a possibility raised again by the final stanza, which suggests choice:

What will you do,
when it is your turn in the field with the god?

To move from girlhood into sexuality can feel like something that is beyond mind:

She is lying in the bed of Hades.
What is in her mind?
Is she afraid? Has something
blotted out the idea
of mind?

Although her mother may be devastated, winter is not where Persephone herself is:

Persephone is having sex in hell.
Unlike the rest of us, she doesn’t know
what winter is, only that
she is what causes it.

Put another way, it is snowing in her mother’s world but not in Persephone’s, which is why the poet asks, “Where is it snowing?” While the loss of Persephone may be winter for Demeter, for Persephone winter is more about forgetfulness than desecration. I suppose this could be PTSD trauma, Persephone blotting out what has happened, but other things in the poem suggest that Persephone is moving into an exciting new world.  In any event, the poem moves powerfully between a mother’s and a daughter’s perspective, between desecration and simply forgetting one’s past:

You must ask yourself:
where is it snowing?

White of forgetfulness,
of desecration—

It is snowing on earth; the cold wind says

As it turns out, Persephone’s imprisonment in hell—if imprisonment is what it is—is not that different from her imprisonment in her girlhood:

She does know the earth
is run by mothers, this much
is certain. She also knows
she is not what is called
a girl any longer. Regarding
incarceration, she believes

she has been a prisoner since she has been a daughter.

Sex in hell may represent liberation from one perspective, but from another it’s just exchanging one prison for another. According to the latter, Persephone is just a pawn in a battle between possessive mother and possessive lover. The story “should be read,” Glück writes,

as an argument between the mother and the lover—
the daughter is just meat.

Or as the old folk song puts it, “Controlled by her parents until she a wife,/ A slave to her husband the rest of her life.”

However one reads the abduction that separates Persephone from her mother, it will change their future interactions. Reunions will become emotionally charged affairs as she wanders between earth and death. Will there be guilt at having left that she feels she must expiate? If she is not allowed to entirely leave (for her old self “to die”) and yet feels that she regresses to her girlhood self while in her mother’s home (“you do not live”), then she will in fact drift. Glück startles us with the observation that her two worlds “seem, finally, strangely alike”:

The terrible reunions in store for her
will take up the rest of her life.
When the passion for expiation
is chronic, fierce, you do not choose
the way you live. You do not live;
you are not allowed to die.

You drift between earth and death
which seem, finally,
strangely alike.

At one point in the poem, Glück invokes Freud’s tripartite scheme of the mind—id, ego, and superego—which suggests a battle between forbidden desires (id) and social taboos (super ego). With regard to the sexual taboos, id, illicit desire, and Hades are all bound up together. But Hades is also mythic realm that the poet can go to for inspiration. According to myth scholars, Persephone is associated with the world of spirit and the occult, the archetype that guides mystics and visionaries. In other words, she is fitting subject matter for a poet who looks for the spiritual dimensions of everyday life:

Song of the earth, song
of the mythic vision of eternal life—

My soul
shattered with the strain
of trying to belong to earth…

Although the poem seems to have strayed from the theme of adolescent sexuality at this point—maybe she feels shattered because she keeps search for the mythic ramifications—earth and myth are indeed bound up together. The fascination with sex and death, between the life force and the death force, could be what draws Persephone to Hades and, for that matter, teenagers to risky behavior. In the question that concludes the poem, Glück essentially asks how one could listen to one’s mother when this mysterious, dangerous, and unknown world beckons:

What will you do,
when it is your turn in the field with the god?

I sense that, if you have any spirit and imagination, it will be hard to turn him down—which may go a long way towards explaining why teens so often “get into trouble.”

Here’s the poem:

Persephone the Wanderer

In the first version, Persephone
is taken from her mother
and the goddess of the earth
punishes the earth—this is
consistent with what we know of human behavior,
 
that human beings take profound satisfaction
in doing harm, particularly
unconscious harm:

we may call this
negative creation.

Persephone’s initial
sojourn in hell continues to be
pawed over by scholars who dispute
the sensations of the virgin:

did she cooperate in her rape,
or was she drugged, violated against her will,
as happens so often now to modern girls.

As is well known, the return of the beloved
does not correct
the loss of the beloved: Persephone

returns home
stained with red juice like
a character in Hawthorne—

I am not certain I will
keep this word: is earth
“home” to Persephone? Is she at home, conceivably,
in the bed of the god? Is she
at home nowhere? Is she a born wanderer, in other words
an existential
replica of her own mother, less
hamstrung by ideas of causality?

You are allowed to like
no one, you know. The characters
are not people.
They are aspects of a dilemma or conflict.

Three parts: just as the soul is divided,
ego, superego, id. Likewise

the three levels of the known world,
a kind of diagram that separates
heaven from earth from hell.

You must ask yourself:
where is it snowing?

White of forgetfulness,
of desecration—

It is snowing on earth; the cold wind says

Persephone is having sex in hell.
Unlike the rest of us, she doesn’t know
what winter is, only that
she is what causes it.

She is lying in the bed of Hades.
What is in her mind?
Is she afraid? Has something
blotted out the idea
of mind?

She does know the earth
is run by mothers, this much
is certain. She also knows
she is not what is called
a girl any longer. Regarding
incarceration, she believes

she has been a prisoner since she has been a daughter.

The terrible reunions in store for her
will take up the rest of her life.
When the passion for expiation
is chronic, fierce, you do not choose
the way you live. You do not live;
you are not allowed to die.

You drift between earth and death
which seem, finally,
strangely alike. Scholars tell us

that there is no point in knowing what you want
when the forces contending over you
could kill you.

White of forgetfulness,
white of safety—

They say
there is a rift in the human soul
which was not constructed to belong
entirely to life. Earth

asks us to deny this rift, a threat
disguised as suggestion—
as we have seen
in the tale of Persephone
which should be read
 
as an argument between the mother and the lover—
the daughter is just meat.

When death confronts her, she has never seen
the meadow without the daisies.
Suddenly she is no longer
singing her maidenly songs
about her mother’s
beauty and fecundity. Where
the rift is, the break is.

Song of the earth, song
of the mythic vision of eternal life—

My soul
shattered with the strain
of trying to belong to earth—

What will you do,
when it is your turn in the field with the god?

Note on the painting: Rossetti’s “Proserpine,” one of my favorite paintings (it hangs in our bedroom), captures the fascination with sexuality and death that Glück explores. Proserpine is cast as an Eve figure, deliberately and provocatively eating the pomegranate as though she is fully aware of the consequences. The slice taken from the fruit resembles a vaginal opening, further suggesting she has embraced her abduction.

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