I previously wrote about two new volumes of poetry in my last column, and poetry is on the menu again today. Shocking! Of course, no one would think anything of it if I covered two novels in a row, or two works of non-fiction. But stick with poetry for a month and there's something a little off about that. There really needs to be more oversight and regulation in poetry coverage.
Persephone in America (Southern Illinois University Press) is the latest book of poetry from Alison Townsend. It follows 2003's The Blue Dress (White Pine) with more strong work that delves into the stressful state of womanhood and femininity in the United States today. It is beautiful poetry, but it is not a pleasant picture.
In a common version of the Greek myth, Persephone (the daughter of Demeter and Zeus), is abducted by Hades to become queen of the underworld. She later can come back to earth for three seasons a year, but must retreat to the underworld for the fourth, winter.
In Townsend's take, Persephone is any one of us. She is Audrey Seiler, she is several of Townsend's college students, she's a girl at West Towne Mall. For these Persephones, sex is scary, femininity is powerful yet dangerous, and the body cannot always be trusted. Townsend takes control in the first poem, "Persephone in America," by picking up Persephone "like Midge or Barbie" and playing with her, as girls do their dolls. It is an authority Townsend holds throughout the book.
The poem about Seiler, "Persephone, Pretending," is a rare sympathetic glimpse at the well known Madison case where a UW coed faked her own abduction. The poet imagines Seiler "powerless...no way out of this lie she almost believes, or the lies ahead." Another local event is chronicled in "Unexpected Harvest," based on an incident where a wedding dress was found in a field after the 2005 Stoughton tornado: "It's hard not to think it might be Persephone's, dropped or torn off as someone whose face she couldn't see dragged her under...."
"Seeing the Virgin Mary at the University of Wisconsin Library Mall" is one of several poems in which Townsend looks at the mythic ties daughters have to their mothers, the deep resonances of the mother-daughter bond. The pastel sidewalk drawing of Mary brings to mind Townsend's mother, who died young, "her faults smudged pretty by memory's thumb."
All the themes of the Persephone myth -- fertility, loss, death, sexuality, violence, mother-daughter relations -- are touched on, with variations played on them all. But the aura is contemporary, with boys playing the gods as teens spin the bottle, as girls confess sexual abuse and find sad relief in cutting themselves or using drugs.
Like the Persephone myth itself, the book in the end does offer hope -- in spring, in rebirth, with more delicate poems like "Asparagus Season" and the tensile "Each Spring the Bloodroot."
These are poems with real depth; they deserve multiple readings. Persephone in America won the first place in the 2008 Crab Orchard Open Poetry Competition. The Madison launch of the book will be at Borders West on March 3, at 7 p.m. Townsend will read along with U.W. Madison professor Jesse Lee Kercheval, whose volume Cinema Muto took second place honors in the same contest.