‘Averno’ by Louise Glück
“Persephone is having sex in hell”
The “modern retelling” of a Greek myths is a typical, played out, and more often than not, boring endeavor. But Louise Glück’s reworking of the Persephone myth in the icy and dramatic Averno works, in part, because Persephone isn’t exactly the core of the book; rather, she serves as a means of informing its bigger, colder, more apocalyptic corners. Even before Persephone enters the book by name, there is the sense that any human being’s development of experience and awareness can lead to grief — the more one knows about the violence and horror that are seamless with reality, the more one is altered. So Persephone — dragged to hell and raped by Hades, released but forced to return for three months every year — is as changed as anyone that’s had an earth-shattering experience. In this passage from “October,” the unnamed narrator could easily be Persephone, her mother Demeter, or anyone else, for that matter:
Summer after summer has ended,
balm after violence:
it does me no good
to be good to me now;
violence has changed me.
When Glück brings in Persephone by name, she takes things a step further, suggesting that Persephone went to hell with Hades of her own volition. It becomes possible that Persephone is finding experience the old fashioned way—chasing the bad boy—and the real debate is between Hades and Demeter, the disapproving mother. Demeter’s a goddess, we’re reminded, so she could procreate again if she wanted to; instead, she allows winter to come year after year while Persephone’s away. This hostility suggests the possibility that sometimes even earth itself “has no wish / to continue as a source of life.” The story of Persephone, Glück explains, should be read “as an argument between the mother and the lover— / the daughter is just meat.”
Though the book benefits from its mythological thread, Glück’s greatest triumph lies elsewhere. The poem “Landscape” is an amazing accomplishment; as in “October,” the speaker might be, but doesn’t have to be, someone from the myth of Persephone. The second section of the five-part poem, which appeared in The Best American Poetry 2003 under the full poem’s title, is one of the strongest. She describes the look of a barren and frozen planet that’s “bleached, like a negative”:
…the light passed
directly through it. Then
the image faded.
Above the world
there was only blue, blue everywhere.
Glück deals best in extremes. The book is full of buzz words like “love,” “soul,” and “death,” and I can see where this would be a turn-off for some people; one could equally claim that a blanket of snow representing memory loss is overdone. But Glück is too precise to let it become a problem. If snow and ice show how one forgets one’s past “lives,” we understand, they also mean a fresh start. “Is she / at home anywhere?” Glück asks, and we’re reminded that each of us is constantly dying and being remade. Averno, a crater lake in southern Italy, was considered by ancient Romans an entrance to the underworld; the balance between the fire of the underworld and the ice of the surface world is constantly in flux. And ultimately, it’s Demeter whose grief takes center stage.
According to the myth, Demeter is responsible for creating winter, because she is in angry despair during each three-month period that Persephone spends in the underworld. Glück, however, suggests that when Persephone went down there for the first time, she was gone for good—and only Demeter’s re-imagining of her begets spring. “Now over and over / her mother hauls her out again,” Glück writes; then Persephone re-enters from the first-person and wonders how to proceed after the horror she’s experienced: “I approached Zeus. Tell me, I would ask him, / how can I endure the earth?” The answer, it seems, is to forget everything and live the same life, as Glück hopefully concludes in the final section of “Landscape”:
And I thought: if I am asked
to return here, I would like to come back
as a human being, and my horse
to remain himself. Otherwise
I would not know how to begin again.