Sunday Poetry: The Myth of Innocence, by Louis Glück

The Myth of Innocence

One summer she goes into the field as usual
stopping for a bit at the pool where she often
looks at herself, to see
if she detects any changes. She sees
the same person, the horrible mantle
of daughterliness still clinging to her.

The sun seems, in the water, very close.
That’s my uncle spying again, she thinks—
everything in nature is in some way her relative.
I am never alone, she thinks,
turning the thought into a prayer.
Then death appears, like the answer to a prayer.

No one understands anymore
how beautiful he was. But Persephone remembers.
Also that he embraced her, right there,
with her uncle watching. She remembers
sunlight flashing on his bare arms.

This is the last moment she remembers clearly.
Then the dark god bore her away.

She also remembers, less clearly,
the chilling insight that from this moment
she couldn’t live without him again.

The girl who disappears from the pool
will never return. A woman will return,
looking for the girl she was.

She stands by the pool saying, from time to time,
I was abducted, but it sounds
wrong to her, nothing like what she felt.
Then she says, I was not abducted.
Then she says, I offered myself, I wanted
to escape my body.
Even, sometimes,
I willed this. But ignorance

cannot will knowledge. Ignorance
wills something imagined, which it believes exists.

All the different nouns—
she says them in rotation.
Death, husband, god, stranger.
Everything sounds so simple, so conventional.
I must have been, she thinks, a simple girl.

She can’t remember herself as that person
but she keeps thinking the pool will remember
and explain to her the meaning of her prayer
so she can understand
whether it was answered or not.

by Louise Glück

This poem disturbs and challenges me.

This presentation of the Persephone tale is a fresh twist on a provocative old tale. Not so long ago, I saw a statue called the Rape of Persephone by Bernini, and it is a powerful work of art. Fingers sink into flesh, tears flow, and violence itself is captured in cold marble – the statue sits in the middle of a room, but its dramatic portrayal makes it seem kinetic.

Bernini’s presentation is worlds apart from Glück’s. This is not the face that Glück is describing.

Bernini depicts a rape – Glück portrays something different and far more complex. If you read about Persephone, you can see that Glück has chosen some awfully deep waters in which to swim.

Start with the title – The Myth of Innocence. Is innocence itself a myth? From the start of the poem, the subject is already beyond true innocence. She already views her daughterliness as a horrible mantle – she looks at herself hoping for change. Her individuality is already separating her from her mother – she wants maturity.

“I am never alone.” Is it a thought or a prayer? It sounds like a complaint – but she turns it from a thought into a prayer, which is then answered in the form of death. Think about that for a while – there’s a lot going on in that little stanza, and I could not begin to summarize all the thoughts it contains. Is she seeking death? Does death keep her from being alone? Is she praying for separation from her family?

This poem stretches language into broad sheets of thought. Even Persephone herself cannot choose words to describe what has happened, and the “rotation of nouns” cannot describe her abductor.

And there is this morsel –

The girl who disappears from the pool
will never return. A woman will return,
looking for the girl she was.

To me, that conveys the bittersweet feeling of reminiscence – the change wrought by time is irreversible, and she cannot even “remember herself as that person.”

I admire Glück for her amazing little poem – the myth of Persephone has, to me, always been a quaint tale told by ancient people to try to explain the changing of the seasons. Glück turns it into a kind of terrifying and awful tale trying to explain the changing of ourselves.

Leave a Reply