Book Review

Yaya’s Cloth by Andrea Potos. Oak Ridge, TN: Iris Press, 2007. $14.

Persephone in America by Alison Townsend. Carbondale, IL: Crab Orchard Review/Southern Illinois University Press, 2009. $14.95.

Reviewed by Judith Barisonzi

Telling the story of one’s life is at once particular and universal. It’s particular because the circumstances of each person’s life are individual, unique. It’s universal because the patterns of our lives can’t help following the old stories, the myths of human experience.

These two volumes by Wisconsin poets both echo the ancient myth of Persephone, snatched from her mother by the god of the Underworld and destined to remain in Hades because she ate six pomegranate seeds. Yet how different the books are!

In Yaya’s Cloth, Potos tells the story of her family, most particularly of her grandmother, called Yaya. Potos presents Yaya in traditionally feminine terms: she washes dishes, hangs laundry on the line, cooks, bakes pastries--“her magic/mingling of moist and dry, cinnamon and honey/seeping onto my tongue as she fed me/another and another“ (p. 27).  Crocheting and embroidering are central metaphors:

            After dinner we watched
            in our grandmothers’ hands
            the yarn, the threads become
            a hillside, a goat, a village girl
            holding a bowl of just-picked olives,
            or perhaps figs, pomegranates--those crimson jewels
            of our underworld story
            against a backdrop of ivory linen.

(“To Another Greek-American Writer," p 74)

Although the volume includes poems about a family tragedy, about pregnancy, motherhood, and writing groups, its basic theme is the desire to rediscover the past; it ends with the poet’s trip to the ancestral village in Greece, and completes the circle with her crocheting, like Yaya, using wool the color of “the sun that floods childhood/and all Septembers” (p. 105).          

Persephone in America is more complex in structure and more varied in subject matter. We learn a lot about the poet, mostly about the early death of her mother from breast cancer, the mother who “binding/and releasing my hair, brushing and brushing/till it shone, stars of blue static crackling/around me like the Milky Way…told me what she knew/about being a woman“ (p. 47). Other poems tell the stories of her female writing students—stories of abuse, addiction, rape, and self-mutilation. The poems alternate between these modern stories and the story of Persephone— who, like them, endured a violent coming of age. But all these stories, ancient and modern, are about girls who “wash dishes, get their periods, brush Maybelline/onto their lashes” (p. 86). In other words, they are about the separation between mother and daughter that is a necessary part of growing up: “We all go there eventually/taken by the dark god from the green/meadow” (p. 62). And if the book has a resolution, it is in beautifully flowing lines about two women of different ages (Persephone and Demeter in Stoughton, Wisconsin), waiting at a street light, at once separate and together: 

            a woman in mid-life, and this girl, her legs
            like spears, so delicate and untouched she
            hardly seems real, everything about her

            perfect and young, from her cut-off
            blue jeans, to the way her lashes curve
            on her cheek, to her body, wrapped tight
            in itself as an ear of new corn.

The light changes, and the two women cross,

                        the slight
            breeze of our passing just brushing
            one another’s skin. I don’t know
            what the girl sees when she looks
            in my eyes, or what looks back at me
            from hers, or why this street is a river
            between worlds, here in the middle

            of the country, in the middle of summer,
            the fields around this small town rippling
            with harvest, cornstalks taller than any child.
            But when I reach the other side I stop
            and look back, unable to leave her.
            Only to see she’s doing the same,

            time and no-time passing between us,
            tasseled and falling, as we stand here,
            smiling again, then suddenly waving
            before we turn and walk away,
            the sun raining its yellow plenty
            everywhere down upon us.

(“Persephone at the Crosswalk,” p. 109)

Let’s listen to the contrasting voices of these two poets as they both assume the voice of the mythic Demeter, Persephone’s mother. Here is Potos—direct, concise, somewhat neutral in tone:

            I grounded my daughter,
            corralled her within
            my own four walls.
            She stomps her feet above me,
            cries to her window’s dreamy
            blue beckoning

            I tried to tell her of
            my blood warning,
            but she cannot think beyond the girl meadow
            of her sure delight.
            She sees the field where she plays
            as seamless and green--
            I see only the blackened
            fingers of rupture
            rising below
            the blades.

(“Demeter Has a Premonition,” p. 79)

And here is Townsend—more colloquial, imagistic, reaching out to the reader and drawing her in:

            No matter what you do, the kid’s a girl looking both ways,
            isn’t she? When you really think about it. When you stand

            in her shoes, whether they are the open-toed gold sandals
            of Greek myth, Indian water-buffalo slides of your youth,

            or those sequined flip-flops that are new again
            this year, dangling from her slender, silver-toe-ringed foot,

            while a tattooed dragonfly dries its blue wings on her ankle
            as if she were the first to ever dream it. No matter

            how she dresses, she’s still your girl, isn’t she,
            standing between worlds, looking both ways, forward

            and back, like you taught her to before crossing a street?
            But deciding by herself. And you’re her mother.

            When you braid her hair, brushing out the night you know
            she’s taken inside her, picking bits of leaf and dirt

            from the long, sun-streaked strands, your fingers
            tangle, catching on the knots of all she hasn’t said.

            And won’t say now, her lips sealed against you,
            no matter how tempered your greeting or sweet your kiss,

            no matter how tender your maternal ministrations.
            Without quite intending to, she’s gone underground
            the face whose curve you shaped with your own hand
            fugitive, a sullen stranger’s you’ll never touch the same way

            again. Still, you keep brushing and braiding, separating
            the strands and binding them together again, as if they were

            a rope by which you could hold her, tethering her to your body
            as she was once anchored and fed, your blood hers. Before

            she began crossing the street without looking back to catch
            your eye. When you were still everything she needed.
                                                            (“Demeter Faces Facts,” p. 35f).

I‘m glad I don‘t have to choose between these books!  I liked Potos’ specificity and Townsend’s bringing ancient myth right up to the present.  Sometimes I wished Potos would stretch a little further, expand her experience beyond the everyday, and sometimes I became weary of Townsend’s meditations on pomegranates and menstrual blood. But the more I read, the more I recognized myself—and I’ll bet you six pomegranate seeds that you will see yourself in these pages as well.

Judy Barisonzi has been a Wisconsin resident since 1966, and she now lives among the lakes and woods of northwest Wisconsin. Semi-retired from teaching English at the University of Wisconsin Colleges, she gives workshops in creative writing and memoir writing, participates in several local writing groups, and publishes poems in local and national magazines.