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by Christine Johnson-Duell

I have always loved the Persephone/Demeter myth and as an MFA student, I discovered Eavan Boland’s poem, “The Pomegranate.” I loved its wistfulness, its wisdom, and its fierce ambivalence (simultaneous wanting: to protect a daughter from, and propel her into, life), especially because I’d always related to this myth as Persephone. The speaker says “…the best thing about the legend is/I can enter it anywhere.”

In the decade that followed grad school, I came across numerous Persephone/Demeter poems. In that decade, I had a daughter, but I never wanted to write a version of the myth. Other poets, better than I, had already done it; the world didn’t need another. And, unlike Boland’s speaker, I was uncertain where to enter it.

I did (and do) however, have a few opinions. I reject the “Persephone-as-victim” interpretation. Consider just for a moment: suppose she went willingly with Hades? How would that shift the story? There is veiled eroticism in the versions of the myth I heard as a child and adolescent. “Hellish” might be an accurate reflection of the intensity one can feel in choosing to be intimate. And as for Hades being the god of death, well, Google “la petite mort.”

I don’t doubt Persephone’s absence caused Demeter the kind of angst that accompanies great ambivalence—like wanting your child to be strong and independent and, at the same time, wanting viscerally to protect her—and might result in the kind of funk that can shrivel vegetation. Boland’s speaker says, “…I could warn her. There is still a chance.” But, if she warns the daughter, the myth dies; Persephone won’t grow up.

Like the speaker, I don’t want to shield my daughter from life—the parts that are as succulent and sweet as a pomegranate seed, and those that aren’t—or send her into the world ignorant and afraid. Taking on this iconic story seemed both terrifying (could I pull it off?) and repellent (how to sidestep being derivative?). No pomegranate verse for me, thanks all the same.

A month before I left for Hedgebrook, my then-10-year-old daughter and I were shopping in our food coop. It’s the coop’s policy to allow kids to choose a piece of fruit, free. For harried parents in a rush, handing a whiny child a plum or an apple can be like a miracle. On this visit, we forgot the fruit until we were checking out. When we remembered, she went, like a child possessed, for a pyramid of pomegranates and chose one.

I was dumfounded that my daughter, who stood on the cusp between childhood and womanhood, had walked, guilelessly, right into this ancient story. It took me a moment to process the shock and amusement on the cashier’s face and I realized I should steer my daughter away from her pricey choice. I suggested that a pomegranate was probably not what they meant. She stared me down and pointed out, “Pomegranate is fruit.”

Despite having it hand delivered, I still refused to write a pomegranate poem. With an adolescent-like will, I resisted. Nothing, not even the universe, would dictate what I write. I packed a huge number of books (including my OED) for my Hedgebrook weeks, but left Boland’s poem at home.

In something of a reversal of the Persephone/Demeter myth, I left my daughter at home to go to paradise. Of course, I couldn’t rid my mind of groceries and pomegranates. The little daily griefs over things I wanted to share with my daughter–Hedgebrook apples! feeding llamas! the last raspberries in the garden!—reinforced those thoughts. I loved being at Hedgebrook and was writing reams but I hadn’t ever been away from my child for so long; I missed her. And I kept shoving pomegranates away.

Here’s the thing about myths: they’re resilient. They’re spot on. And, they are inescapable. I am certain that somewhere in the pantheon of myths there is a foolish mother who thinks she can escape her destiny by hiding from the deities. Or a poet who believes she can refuse what the universe offers.

One day, I opened the lunch Ruby had made for me and in it, I found a pomegranate. It was as if Hedgebrook itself had written to me: for god’s sake, enter the myth and write it down! I could not resist the muses of Hedgebrook. Although the world probably doesn’t need another pomegranate poem, I needed to write one.

So, I did.


Christine Johnson-Duell
About Christine Johnson-Duell

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