No 168 - 2002
Once she’d removed her intricate hoard of loveable things - the silver sea-horse, the jay feathers, pink shells, veined pebbles, palekhi box and plants, above all the plants, a flowery meadow of them - I knew she’d not come back very often. And that intimate hoard was the most loyal reminder of our connection. Of the time before that day when, picking flowers, a great hole had opened up and he’d charged out, King of the Underworld, in black, and carried her off.
The story is often told as if Persephone had minded; as if there hadn’t been little looks and secret signs, little come-ons, as she went flower picking with her friends. Of course later in the story she seems to have accepted her fate with equanimity for you see her on terracotta, marble and alabaster, seated and triumphant beside Hades in his royal carriage touring the Underworld. By then she doesn’t seem to mind. By then it’s Demeter’s problem.
You can be in mourning for someone who, technically speaking, isn’t dead. But I speak mythically, not technically. These days her dry little voice-in-a-box is grown-up, moved on, rational. It appeals to a sense of proportion in family matters, in the face of the inevitable. Tell that to Zeus, Hades, Demeter, Persephone! Forget your wise-eyed family counsellors, all listening positions, perspectives and compromises. I don’t speak techno-speak and I don’t speak psycho-speak either. For the Gods who rule within, small things are Olympian and catastrophic.
I remember the first visit to her first room in her new semi-autonomous life, where I was to be an uneasy guest. I looked around at the re-arranged trove - the shells, stones, feathers etc, now immersed in a new one of pottery jars where incense burned, of Indonesian masks glaring from Indonesian batik wall hangings, of silk scarves diaphanous over lamps. The maidenhair fern trailed, the Botticellian ivies and figs wreathed over the picture rails, dried purple thistles glared, African violets simmered and the old rubber plant, now gigantic, spread its cool hands over one corner. Her room was W.H. Hudson. Her room was deepest Green.
She was to carry this flowery meadow with her to all those temporary rents, the student rooms, all ghastly in the same way: sickly distemper, wall-papered gentility, damp, bulging, jerry-built furnished houses with the lurking smell of a hundred years of dinners. Temporary because landlords came and went, they failed to pay bills. There were eviction orders and condemnings. This was an underworld of rotting housing. But somehow, with the help of a little band of admirers, a seven-dwarves I never met, she re-created the flowery meadow. Actually, since her room was always at the top of the house I sometimes called it her Rapunzel tower. It was always at the top, above the indescribable filth of the lower floors where ordinary students lived. I imagined her ascending the stairs through this pestilence, untouched by it, with a lamp.
On the second visit I noticed the mono-theme of the pictures with which she’d covered the many defects of the walls, cupboards and mirrors. The theme was: a girl, an art nouveau Ophelia or Persephone - someone like that - in some draped grotto, watched over by a dark bearded male - a sultan, a Herod, a Cophetua, a mogul - anyway a patriarch of some sort. I tried to ignore it. She moved around the room, her hair catching the light from the crystal she’d hung in the window as if to put a spell on the room.
But in spite of the shrine at the top of their house, the plants that thrived as nowhere else, the butterflies that seemed to follow her where-ere she walked, eye-catchingly dressed, in spite of, or maybe because of all that, a certain nastiness lurked about. An evil intent in odd incidents and coincidences she’d mention: series of obscene phonecalls, the local flasher, stalkers who followed her home, campus rapists, scraps of pornography stuffed through the letter box. But nothing happened. It was always impending.
It’s the early summer of her second year under the never repeating pattern of leaves stencilled onto a plain blue sky: ‘‘When Lilacs Last In The Doorway Bloomed’ is an elegy. Normally the elegy follows a traditional structure: the poet expounds his grief; some consoling thought is developed; this gives way to a sense of acceptance and reconciliation with death. But in Whitman’s poem...’
She likes reading aloud her essays, spellbinding with her voice as she does with her presence. But she doesn’t like my interruptions, comments or queries, though she asks for them. She will use them if she can. She wants to get a First. Or she did then.
‘...out of this symbol and accompanying images...’
...her voice dissolves into the stream of birdsong, rook chatter and young laughter all around on the grass, and the constant whirr and roar of a mover. I’m suddenly aware how close it is as a faint shower of grass falls on the books spread out on the rug. The machine’s reared up behind us. I realise she’s stopped reading and is looking up. The mower is a green tractor with side paddles which let themselves down and up as they extend their blades; it’s like a gigantic grasshopper. Why on earth does it have to come so close?
I look up into a long sunburned face, long pale blue eyes, a long thin mouth; a brutal face, I think, though it’s smiling for some reason. Not particularly young, though this sunburned man is dressed in the bleached denim uniform of the young. In this moment he’s like a Viking rearing up on a horse as he veers the machine away at the last moment.
‘That’s a bit unnecessary...’ I start to say, when I catch her fleeting conspiratorial glance, the tail-end of her smile. And I realise the sudden assault had been planned, is a joke, there has been an understanding. But she says nothing to me and the driver and his machine clatter off at speed across the lawn.
‘...song from nature is the universal necessity and beauty of death...’
The last time (in that time before, I mean), I visited her new rooming house, it was a rooming house by the sea and the large windows faced out towards it. I came into the room, not thinking about the sea, and was breath-taken. The sea was filling the room with its silk canopy, breathing a little, like silk stretched over a body. White sails perched on it as on a tapestry. The silk was so luxurious the pale shoals were no more than slightly faded streaks on a coronation robe. The royalty of it would have been the only luxury in that basically abject room. But of course she had already installed her portable temple. I remember how this sea had soothed my disquiet that day. But I’d also thought if I lived there I’d have to cope with its moods, its instability and sudden assaults, the way it might suddenly fill the room with its madness.
That was the last time I saw her still believing her to be unattached.
The next visit the Viking is seated in a new Indian-throw-covered chair. He of the unsmiling, sunburned long, ruthless face, he of the cold eyes. The thin mouth is scornful, of the occasion it seems to me.
‘Kev, meet my Mum! Mum, Kev!’
Despite the bleached denim, the modish incoherence, there’s an air of substance and authority about him. Her voice to him and her voice to me are two different voices: to me the tight little voice of reason and ambition, a bit hoity-toity, as my mother would have said. To him the lisping, ingratiating little girl voice. She’s feeding him his lines and putting me back in my box.
I snatch remnants of myself. I snatch at our connection. I talk too much. I see hot little conspiratorial glances at him, and cold little viperish glances at me to see if I have noticed the hot little glances. I see little appeals for permission. I hear false little laughs. This is the time to hand over the keys with a motherly smile;
‘After all you’re not losing a daughter but gaining a son...’
You’re gaining nothing but your obselescence!
No, the farewell was not to cosy female talk about health, diets, cosmetics, men and gossip. No. It was farewell to the flowery meadow: the earliest prickling light on birches still halo-ed in purple, the eccentricity of rooks in their masks on the campus lawns; to meditation, healing herbs, Hildegard of Bingen, the power of amethyst; the essays on Whitman, Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, the romantic vision that had elevated all our talk. My crisply articulated opinions had zinged weekly down the phone. My authority in this realm had been revered. Or so I’d imagined.
People who fancy up their lives into flowery meadows deserve all they get. Why, even Persephone’s original meadow in Sicily is now acres of concrete surrounding a motor-racing track. Hades burst out there alright!
I left the house that day dismissed. The cold salty air poured over me like reality, the sea pounding and dragging on the pebbles sounded like the breathing of a sick man. Even the town’s one bird, the gull (those birds go about their business like pedestrians 20 feet up, as if minding the town), who’d always filled me with a sense of continuous benediction, today shrieked out its jeers;
‘Get yourself a life!’
The current slogan. Where life is what the masses say life is - visible, comprehensible, shared and approved of. Life is where imagination scarcely dare poke out its head. Life is where Gods are dumb and silly.
I feel like I don’t have a life. And when Persephone vanished Demeter her mother didn’t have one either. For a bit, anyway. When Persephone was abducted Demeter went weird - something of a bag-lady, continually on the move, messing up people’s allotments, an intrusive and untrustworthy child-minder. Still she was in charge of more than she realised, I mean the seasons and flowering of the earth, and was enough of a threat to do a deal with Zeus: Hades was to let Persephone return from his realm for one third of the year. But he always gave her a pomegranate so she’d never forget him or fail to come back to him.
CREWDSON GARDEN SERVICES AND PLANT HIRE.
On the forecourt stand assorted grabs, earth-movers, trenchers and motor-mowers like big grasshoppers. Behind the cottage-style building with gables and tiles there’s acreage of greenhouse. Inside, at the check-out, in a zippy outfit, on a swivel chair, sits Persephone pressing the gong and calling prices out to Hades in a supermarket voice.
And indeed she’d gone to live in Man Land.
Demeter had known nothing at all about Persephone.
And anyway how else could Persephone have got Demeter off her back?
But I reject all clichés and helpful hints regarding this situation!
And thus it came to pass our meetings were like prison visits, watched and overheard. My excursions into her life were accompanied by an official tourist guide in a totalitarian country, questions anticipated and answers scripted. I rarely saw her alone. When I did, there’d be a long run-up with complicated problems about when and where. His presence haunted the occasion with a latent timetable, much diary play and having-to-go-and-phone. I’d have preferred the pomegranate.
Sometimes I see myself like a predator bird, staring down from a great height onto a mouse, my child, a crafty escaping mouse; indeed she brings out the rook in me, the spinster-ish poking, the threats and the dereliction. Diamond-cut is her clear voice as she admits to no part in this story. Diamond cut I must be too.
On the station platform, where she isn’t waiting, the rain-flayed roses and yellow ice-flowers are bent under their own weight. I am a once essential organ extruded because rejected. She’s gone to live in Man Land where I do not belong. Man Land: the Father, Courtier, Husband, Rich Old Man, Psycho-analyst. Especially him! How I sit speehless and pathologised in my corner! Let the whole crowd of them come on in full regalia with their stern looks and she on her Thumbelina throne alongside Hades, all smiles and wand-waving! I shuffle-shuffle into the servant’s quarters muttering long-life curses.
Who will believe the depth of this wound? Nobody.
This story can never reach an end. Two thirds, one third. In the meantime nomadic ex-mothers; hovering, ridiculed Mothers-in-Law. Bag Ladies the lot of them. I call for her after work and hover around the Herbs and Climbers. I bow to his authority on Patio Tiles and Water-features. I listen and nod. I don’t look at her. I wander round the suburban wasteland that encloses his realm.
Once or twice she’s been back to the house where a faint sense of her and of her trove still lingers: a spilled lavender sachet in the corner of a drawer, a tea-towel printed with different species of butterfly, a bird-mobile still hung in the bathroom, a postcard of Millais’ ‘Ophelia’. You see, it is inconclusive. Left dangling. I’m living on a cusp.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The story of Demeter, Persephone and Hades can be found in ‘Hymn to Demeter’; Homeric Hymns, 2nd edition; 1936 T.W. Allen, W.R. Halliday and E.E.Sykes. You’ll see it’s kind of inconclusive too. Left dangling. Two thirds. And one third with pomegranate.
Judy Gahagan has published poetry, prose and translations in a number of magazines; a volume of short stories, two pamphlets and a volume of poetry. She runs courses in psychology and poetry and is currently busy on a novel about dream research.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The