Frederic Leighton, Persephone
PERSEPHONE STEPS OFF THE ELEVATOR AT THE 4TH FLOOR
and emerges again onto the adobe walled landing,
the Southern California horizon wide as an avalanche
exposing parrot-wing cerulean, and cobalt
streaking into the molten crown of evening’s still golden
Returning to light,
even twilight makes her shadow gasp with
recognition. Here on the 4th floor she seems still
long-haired and trusting, the speckled-blue egg of her
gaze is open to any invitation, as it was before
she became the Queen of Night,
If only she had not returned,
ascended to this balcony that obscures the long
corridor, on the walls of which hang photos
showing a girl
holding a blue flower; if
only she didn’t have to look
at the radiant sky, its
beauty reminding her of everything she’s either
lost or never had.
In the moment of stepping into light
she does not know,
for the first time,
if beauty is,
or ever can be
~ Diane Wakoski, San Diego Poetry Annual 2012-13
In spite of the supposed death of myth, I keep seeing new Penelope and Persephone poems. I don’t mean just a handful -- a friend of mine said that she keeps track of Penelope poems, and has read hundreds of those. Of course there are poems about other myths as well, and maybe it’s my selective attention that makes me see so many Penelope and Persephone poems. The stories of these two wives seem to speak to us in a powerful way.
It’s almost strange to say “wives” -- separation from the husband is an essential part of the story. Each is really “a woman alone,” as Wakoski refers to her mother; each has found a way to cope. Elsewhere in this blog I speak of Penelope’s weaving (“It’s my waiting that creates you”). I’ve also examined Persephone as another aspect of Aphrodite who was known as Aphrodite of the Graves. The pomegranate was sacred to both goddesses. But unlike Aphrodite, Persephone is a dual goddess: she withdraws from the world and then returns, bringing the gift of springtime. The Queen of the Dead is also the goddess of life, of spring.
Persephone ascends -- it’s that moment of entry that we see brought up to date in Wakoski’s poem. This is one of her most exquisite and well-crafted pieces. It’s built around unexpected imagery, starting with the elevator. The myth does speaks of Persephone’s “ascent,” usually making us think of climbing a steep, dim path in the Underworld. Having Persephone take the elevator instead is brilliant.
Of course it helps to live in Southern California where there are so many of those adobe walled landings. I was reminded of various clinics where you leave the Hades of medical offices and take the elevator to the parking on the roof. You enter the light and for a moment you are a young girl again. You are Persephone revisiting your girlhood. Even your shadow “gasps with recognition.” You’ve left sickness behind and are returning to your real self and the real world. How radiant everything is!
And yet . . . Here is “the Southern California horizon wide as an avalanche.” I’ve watched an avalanche from a distance once. The noise was very similar to thunder, or a lethal cavalry charge, the horses of death white, not black. There is no escaping mortality; each year brings some unavoidable losses. No, you are not a girl anymore. Here on the fourth floor, the roof parking, your white Toyota is waiting like a patient animal. You drive off not just into the beauty of the world, but also into the noise, the demands.
And I love this recurrence of girlhood, situated so precisely at the 4th floor:
Returning to light,
even twilight makes her shadow gasp with
recognition. Here on the 4th floor she seems still
long-haired and trusting, the speckled-blue egg of her
gaze is open to any invitation
~ Here on the 4th floor she is still a girl who trusts, who believes everyone is kind and will like her. No matter what the trauma, a part of us is inviolable and returns to that trust again and again. It's one of life's mysteries, and I suspect that without it, we couldn't live on.
I am not sure if Wakoski is aware that “to enter the light” has become a New Age metaphor for dying. Even if she isn’t, we are still entitled to see any meaning that occurs to us. The poem belongs to the reader, and its meaning changes for each psyche, as well as over time.
But we need not invert the meaning of the myth quite so radically as to see the time in the Underworld as life (at least inner life and creative solitude), and dying as return to the earth-worldliness-dailiness. It’s rather that the inner life that is the realm of memory, a gallery of the past. In relation to memory, we are posthumous.
This poem shows why it pays for poets to know mythology. Through the power of myth, an ordinary, pedestrian event such as stepping out of the elevator is transformed into a larger vision. Jung: “He who invokes archetypes speaks with a thousand mouths.”
Another thing I admire about is how the poem presents that precise moment of entering the light, and never leaves that moment. It’s a vignette, a still shot, not a narrative. It does not retell the myth, which the reader is assumed to know.
So we have here a very powerful combination:
1) the power of myth, an immortal story with multiple meanings
2) the power of a single moment -- a “narrow slice,” “tight focus,” “the eternal moment”
3) the power of setting the myth in the modern world -- Persephone steps out of the elevator
4) the power of specificity -- she exits at the fourth floor; the adobe-walled landing and many other highly specific yet relevant images, such as the photograph of a girl holding a blue flower
In classical mythology, Persephone is NOT the Queen of the Night, and she is not cruel (she is very gracious to the aged Oedipus, for instance). Wakoski conflates her Persephone with the wicked Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Here is the splendid Queen of the Night aria:
But Wakoski is right in reminding us that cruelty arises from wounds, from abuse. Can beauty fully heal us? All the “comfort poems” I know say that life is full of suffering -- but look at the beauty. Beauty makes life worth living, in spite of the unavoidable losses and grief. But there are times when we may wonder if beauty is enough.
Like many women, in my youth I identified with Persephone, especially in her victimized condition. Beauty was barely enough. Now I am willing to say yes, beauty is enough. I never tire of the late afternoon’s gold deepening into sunset.
The “eternal moment” is Milosz’s phrase. “Life’s counted not by breaths, but by breathless moments” I say in one of my poems. Sometimes those are moments of entry.
Milosz wrote only one myth poem that I’m aware of, and he wrote it late in life, after the loss of his second wife. Not surprisingly, he becomes Orpheus and she Eurydice. Milosz too brings Orpheus to live among us. This is his entrance to the modern Underworld. Note that the season here autumn, and the location is a city, possibly New York. Here is the opening of “Orpheus and Eurydice”:
Standing on flagstones of the sidewalk at the entrance to Hades
Orpheus hunched in a gust of wind
That tore at his coat, rolled past in waves of fog,
Tossed the leaves of the trees. The headlights of cars
Flared and dimmed in each succeeding wave.
He stopped at the glass-paneled door, uncertain
Whether he was strong enough for the ultimate trial.
He remembered her words: “You are a good man.”
He did not quite believe it. Lyric poets
Usually have – he knew it – cold hearts.
It is like a medical condition. Perfection in art
Is given in exchange for such an affliction.
Only her love warmed him, humanized him.
When he was with her, he thought differently about himself.
He could not fail her now, when she was dead.
He pushed open the door and found himself walking in a labyrinth,
Corridors, elevators. The livid light was not light but the dark of the earth.
Electronic dogs passed him noiselessly.
He descended many floors, a hundred, three hundred.
He was cold, aware that he was Nowhere.
Under thousands of frozen centuries,
On a trace of ash where generations had moldered,
In a kingdom that seemed to have no bottom and no end.
The entrance to Hades is through the glass-paneled doors of one of the huge office buildings downtown. Inside, a labyrinth of corridors and “electronic dogs” -- certainly we can’t expect a real dog, or even a mythological three-headed Cerberus, to stand guard. Cerberus, you may recall, was so soothed by the music of Orpheus that he fell asleep, letting the intruder enter the forbidden kingdom. The electronic dogs never sleep.
And then, though Milosz doesn’t specify it, Orpheus pushes the down button of a gleaming elevator and begins to descend. We are both in time -- our time -- and outside of time, in mythology.
Poets rarely simply retell the myth: they revise it and modernize it. Thus Dante’s impudent-seeming change in the ending of The Odyssey: he sends Odysseus to explore the forbidden seas of the Western hemisphere (in Dante’s imagination, that hemisphere is all ocean, with enormous Mount of Purgatory rising directly opposite Jerusalem). Like Dante, Milton too interweaves classical mythology into the Judeo-Christian one. Poets update according to what makes sense in their lifetimes.
To Milosz, born in 1911, what mattered most was the startling changes he witnessed in the twentieth century. It wouldn’t do to have a pastoral Orpheus. At the cusp of the new millennium, Orpheus becomes urban. Like Persephone, he enters the Underworld in autumn -- late autumn, with gusts of cold wind and fog. The headlights of cars also come in waves, in gusts. Orpheus stands on the sidewalk at the glass doors that are the entrance to Hades. He stands hunched, huddled against the cold; the wind tears at his coat.
Then he enters what I assume to be a skyscraper. It’s a modern office building, with labyrinths of corridors and elevators. To me, the “livid light” suggests fluorescent tubes. Hospitals are also mazes of corridors, filled with disembodied voices. But this skyscraper, which may be Mount Purgatory if one takes the elevator going up, has many underground floors. Orpheus takes the elevator going down, and finds himself “nowhere.” Only the twentieth century dared present this bleakness: an afterlife of nowhere.
Orpheus is not just physically cold; he also perceives himself as cold-hearted. That, too, is a modern perception. Poets used to be regarded as the embodiment of passion. It took modernity to acknowledge that any artist has a certain aloofness. S/he does not live for others the way most people do. An artist’s lover will never be as important as art itself. The time reserved for creative work is sacred; it must be defended against the devouring others. (Rilke found even a dog to be too emotionally demanding.)
The poem continues; Orpheus sees throngs of other shades who no longer remember him, and finally encounters Persephone. I have already discussed it in another blog post:
Another way to use myth in a poem is to interweave it with a personal narrative. In this one Aphrodite steps out of the shower. Yes, one has to be modern.
(A special note on Jehovah’s Witnesses in relation to “Jim the Drywall Man” -- I’ve known (though not closely) a few Jehovah’s Witnesses besides Jim: all of them struck me as decent and well-meaning, just extremely out of touch with the modern world. They really believe that the Universe is only 6,000 years old. One JW wrote on Facebook that humanity is still in post-traumatic shock after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. She didn’t mean it metaphorically, e.g. we never quite get over the loss of childhood. She meant it literally. The Garden of Eden is the sect’s foundational myth -- except that they don’t see it as a myth.)
I’m stepping out of the shower
like Aphrodite rising from the sea –
all dewy syllables of her, but if
you touch her, jolts of diamond –
And me in misty rivulets,
hurrying and streaming
because the drywall man
will arrive any minute.
He’s late. His eighty-year-old aunt
just had a nervous breakdown,
burned out by taking care of
her one-hundred-year-old mother.
“Breakdown runs in our family,”
he explains. The aunt says her veins
are on fire. “What should she
be taking? B vitamins?
B vitamins and lots of exercise?”
The eighty-year-old aunt
collapses after merely
walking across the room –
the room perhaps just dry-walled,
fuming with fresh paint.
She drops onto the armchair,
too weak to get up. Her veins
are on fire. Many still believe
the smoke goes to heaven.
James the drywall man
does not traffic in heaven.
A Jehovah’s Witness,
he’s waiting for eternal life
in the Peaceful Kingdom –
first wholesale slaughter,
the long-promised Armageddon,
then the lion and the lamb,
and a little child. And death,
what’s death but sleep
before the Resurrection for the few
true believers who take
B vitamins and get lots of exercise.
Poets are no better. I myself
have translated these shameless
Aphroditic lines: There is no
old age. Only flower and fruit.
Each year I feel closer to fruit.
Aphrodite is always in blossom,
satin spill of petals without
bruise or the wind’s brutal tug.
She knows nothing about love.
~ Oriana © 2013
Aphrodite is not really the goddess of love. She is the goddess of romance. That kind of love is cheap. Real love takes time. It takes a ruthless knowledge of the partner’s flaws, and learning to love him or her nevertheless. I hesitate to say “in spite of the flaws” since in the end we love even those flaws.
“There is no old age. Only flower and fruit” -- this is a quotation from Milosz, though I no longer remember which poem or essay it comes from. In life there IS old age, and for some it can be terrible. But in myth, the cycle of flower and fruit continues. “We kissed briefly in everlasting spring.” And memory has no past tense.
(A shameless, artistically incorrect digression: aging could be summarized as an energy shortage. The cells’ mitochondria don’t produce enough energy; all ills flow from that. We can slow down mitochondrial damage by taking 400 mg of CoQ10 and N-acetyl-cysteine [NAC] to increase the levels of an important antioxidant enzyme. We can avoid toxic, inflammation-causing, mitochondria-damaging excessive exercise. We can eat Greek yogurt . . . Will stem cells prove to be the golden apples of immortality? Not if money continues to be poured into useless bombers and warships.)
Mozart's aria is amazing the way her voice is the exact same tone as the flutes.
The last three paragraphs were my favorites: Aphrodite as the goddess of romance rather than love.
I think Mozart had terrific fun while composing this aria. Let me give the link again:
What saddens me is being always aware that he died at the peak of his creativity. Imagine what treasures one more year of life would bring.
I’m planning a blog post on romance versus love.
Una sends us a poem:
So she came back needing to make things whole.
Pumpkins dried on the back porch rail
and wind wrapped around her with cold.
The house was numb
and spent, her world too splintered to be
picked up where she left off. Nothing
had changed. Yet everything had changed,
the marriage rent like cobwebs.
An apron hung on a rusty nail, the old life
shattered like a pomegranate hurled
from an upstairs window, bleeding
seeds into the dust.
~ Una Hynum © 2013
Thanks for the Wakoski poem, Persephone theme. I find her second stanza the only section that touches me.The first stanza feels forced and avalanche doesn't work for me nor what feels to me like filler description. Overall perhaps the poem is bringing a myth to its knees and lacks the mystery that would possibly move me more. I like the idea of the goddess stepping out of the elevator, the introit into that goddess as she lives in women today,
as you comment, going through their daily rounds in the midst of mortality. I’m glad Wakoski is writing and expressing poetry as she knows it. And most of all thanks for your time and caring to interact with the poem. I value that.
I was thrilled with the very idea of Persephone taking the elevator up to the 4th floor, which I strongly associate with roof parking for medical buildings. Perhaps I was too swayed by that personal association, and my former strong identification with Persephone the victimized maiden. The second stanza touches me the most, but the whole poem does. For me the mystery lies in that return -- no matter how violated we were at some point, a part of us is inviolable, the maiden who merely watched and did not lose a sense of her value as a person. She intuitively understood that bad people act out of their wounds, and maybe even came to feel pity for the man (for me that was the moment of liberation).
I took “avalanche” to mean “overwhelming.” Emerging into the California light often has that quality for me. The West Coast in general: the space and the brightness.
At the same time, I would not call this poem a major piece. The title is brilliant; there is some falling off after that.
Where I most connect with what you say is this:
I like the idea of the goddess stepping out of the elevator, the introit into that goddess as she lives in women today, as you comment, going through their daily rounds in the midst of
That's why I gave the poem this kind of attention. It diverges from the myth just enough to interest me, the myth rising from death into life, from darkness into light, still inherent.
The myth changes depending on the artist. The photographer Anne Berry entitled the photo below "Persephone" ~ note the eerie faces of the other macaques.