Joshua Kryah



Eating in the Underworld

Rachel Zucker
0-8195-6628-4, 2003
Wesleyan University Press, $12.95


Rachel Zucker's first book of poems, Eating in the Underworld, spotlights the myth of Persephone, chronicling her dramatic transition from maidenhood to womanhood: "I am / becoming something / other than I was. / A consort. A Queen. / No more a maiden but still with maiden hands." Escaping the vigilant watch of mother Demeter, Persephone gradually warms to the physical and otherworldly intrigues offered by her husband Hades in the underworld, where she spends half the year. Zucker's collection attempts to distinguish Persephone from both mother and lover, and to separate her from the myth by chronicling the transformation of the adolescent self. Similar to Anne Carson's Autobiography in Red (another figure of Greek myth, Geryon, escapes the clutches of his affectionate but ineffectual mother for a cavalier drifter), Zucker chooses to explore the nuances of Persephone's binary existence through spare lyrical poems, employing a subtle economy of line to hollow out a space in which she is able to speak on the "end of maidenhood," as well as to verify the "ache and savor" of maturity.

The collection is made up of a sequence of diary entries, letters, and notes divided into two parts, the first a record of Persephone's experiences in the realm of the dead, and the second her return to the world of the living. The epistolary genre has long been associated with women writers, and in this case it allows gender and genre a parallel space within identity and ideology, where the text's shape and style inform the power relationships explored within each poem. The epistolary reflex functions as a pre-genesis for Persephone's journey into womanhood and the development of her own space within a safe textual zone. It is in this space that she feels most comfortable commenting on her predicament: her condition of maidenhood, ("damn these maidens…if I could only show them"), her noncompliance in the role of wife, ("I don't remember…wanting your name"), and her revision of the myth to which her mother is so partial:

Only a mother could fabricate such a story:
the earth opened and pulled her down.

She shows my picture all over town
and worries the details of my molestation.

Terrified she screamed for mother…
but I did not scream.

By interrupting Demeter's narrative, Persephone exerts her authority on the tale, placing her voice next to those of Homer and Ovid. Ironically, such forwardness never manifests itself in Persephone's letters to Demeter; instead it ripens in diary entries and notes left for Hades. If anything, this is where Zucker may be too accurate in her portrayal of conflicted youth—too often, Persephone's tone constricts with vehemence toward her aggressors rather than loosening into the more contemplative state of which Zucker is capable.

Violence drives a good portion of these poems. Weary of a confined adolescence, Persephone withdraws to the Underworld in order to be "away from where the body / of my mother is everywhere." In anguished letters, Demeter implores Persephone to return to the surface, abandon the love affair, and resume the role of daughter:

to find you gone
is more than I
can bear

bird

up out of
mortuary, aviary

       I hold
your memories
     first words
 favorite animals

nostros (return home)
   neistha (return)
      nesan (survive)
nasaic (she approaches)

without me
the path will not
endure the present
landmark of forced
scenery
homesick, you circle
you will not find
or journey or
bear children

At once beseeching and damning, the syntax and spacing of these poems are strained to mimic Demeter's desperation. Her attempts to spirit Persephone back to the surface only provoke resistance, as her letters become more and more aggravated. Hades' correspondence also gives Persephone cause to worry. Eager to covet his bride, he frets over the continued threat of Demeter, compounding Persephone's exasperation: "I fear that she will find you, / that there is a chemical / she might trace to reveal / your many paths." This "chemical" is, of course, the sexual fruition of the relationship (the eating of the seeds of the pomegranate) and the acrid sulfur of ownership that now escorts Persephone.

The space she attempts to inhabit with Hades is already taken up with the king of the dead, leaving little room for her: "In him is a loneliness so complete he cannot feel it. / I grow to fit it. / My hips, under his, give way." Consummation results in a forcible purging of the self: "He depends on nothing. / I will make myself worthy." Such worthiness requires conformity to a role and place similar to that of daughter—subservient, docile, and full of sacrifice.

Upon her return to the surface, it becomes clear that Persephone's experience in the Underworld has indeed changed her, but not as she had anticipated. Now "Words like 'whore' or 'bench' or 'cap' are what I find, / all that's left by others." Here, the language she once sought solace and refuge in turns against her, defining her in relation to the very roles she had hoped to escape.

Rendering a simultaneously bleak and progressive existence, Zucker's poems are unrelenting in their depiction of Persephone's struggle. Although she longs to "photograph" herself "out of this" life, to "be a man writing about animals or history," Persephone is never allowed to transcend her role of either daughter or wife. Ultimately, she is left to her (very Greek) fate. What makes this book such a delight to read however, is Persephone's reluctance to "put desire away" in the face of such a destiny, always reminding us to "Remember, when you see me, I am inside who I was."

 

 

© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review