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Demeter Goes Skydiving
reviewed by Yvonne Blomer

Demeter Goes Skydiving
Susan McCaslin
University of Alberta Press, 2011

 


Susan McCaslin writes in the forward to her latest collection of poems Demeter Goes Skydiving, “What if Demeter, the timeless fertility goddess of ancient Greek myth, slipped through the crack into the twenty first century…?” I’d like to turn that question on its head and ask, what if a poet from the twenty first century was able to bring Demeter here, was able to slip into the mythic world of the Greek goddesses and return changed by the depth of experience, longing and power of those goddesses?

Demeter Goes Skydiving begins with an invocation, a word which has the meaning of “conjuring of spirit (or in this case gods)” and “self-identification with spirits”. In the first long section of McCaslin’s book the poems conjure, they bring the Greek gods into the modern world and they create a link between the narrator and those gods. The poems are overtly centered on Demeter and Persephone and the experiences of abduction and rape and how those experiences are interpreted by these goddesses through a twenty-first century lens.

In the second section, titled “Old Love” the poems are infused with the suggestions of the gods and goddesses but they rise away from the direct links to them. Here the narrator indirectly identifies with the experiences of Demeter and Persephone. These poems have an underlying tremor, a depth without being overly linked to the stories of Demeter and Persephone.

It’s as if McCaslin has, through the first poems, prepared the reader (and herself) for the second section where the personal experiences can be held in the palm of the goddess Demeter and her daughter. It is as if the mother and daughter in one poem can mirror the goddess and her daughter in another but without this connection being overtly pointed out.

In the section titled “Demeter Goes Skydiving” each poem has the god or goddess it is about in the title, such as “Demeter has a short Colloquy with her Inner Gaia”:

D: Inside or outside?
G: Both
D: Mother or daughter?
G: Both
D: Pilgrimage or marriage?
G: Both
D: Festival or funeral?
G: Both
D: Resting or moving?
G: Both
G: What do you want then?
D: The heart, dear craft, not untimely ripped
from the mother
but sailing out of its own accord

The Demeter of these poems can see the grey-areas of her daughter’s abduction – how there is choice and no choice, how it is both festival and funeral. In the end, however, the mother wishes for a gentler transition for her daughter from childhood to womanhood. This poem exemplifies how the poems in this section take on the myth head-on so that the poems veer on the political; on the roles of society in how women’s bodies and men’s actions are perceived.

In the second section “Old Love” McCaslin circles around the questions that arise in the first. The poems sit on the ideas in the previous section, on the reminders of mythology enabling them to come at the same topics a little less directly. The poem “I have Heard the Cows Lowing for their Calves” is a good example of this:

The first month in our rural home
a shrieking ruckus in the night
startles us from sleep.

Perhaps the cows wish to warn
of an impending storm,
maybe even an earthquake,

their disconsolate bellowing and braying
prolonged like Rachel’s weeping
for her children who were not.

Next day, a neighbour says
this was just the keening of cows
for young untimely weaned,

the bawling calves’ sad repartee,
providing at last a sound
commensurate to my inward lamentation

for my own dear child.

The poems that take on the myth directly are intriguing and sometimes clumsy simply because they are taking on this parallel between now and then; goddess and the twenty first century. Poems in the second section resonate with the personal.

When McCaslin pairs Persephone with a well-known female character from Biblical myth, the poem chills, reminds us that these characters, of course, come before those other ones we know so well:

Persephone Finds Ruth on the Threshing Floor

(…)That night on the threshing floor,
when Ruth crept up to her kinsman Boaz’s mat,

Persephone, Queen of the Dead,
dripping with golden gleanings,
whispered into her ear

(…)

And out of that night flew Jesse, and David,
and the numberless unnamed daughters.

Yvonne Blomer lives in Victoria, BC where she works as a poet, memoirist, writing teacher, event organizer and mom. In 2012 her series of poems “Bicycle Brand Journey” illustrated by Regan Rasmussen will launch with Jack Pine Press as well as a collection of poems titled The Book of Places with Black Moss Press.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #16