Mortal by Ivy Alvarez
Reviewed by Stephen Page
Demeter is the ancient Greek goddess of agriculture and fecundity. She is often depicted in artwork as carrying corn, shafts of wheat, or the horn of Cornucopia (or a combination). She governs harvestable food for the people and plant life for the earth. The myth goes something like this, depending which version of the myth you read: Demeter bears a daughter named Persephone. When Persephone is a young maiden, Hades, the Greek god of the underworld spies her picking flowers in a field of Narcissi. She is humming to herself and roaming about the field without parental supervision. Hades bursts up from the ground and snatches Persephone, descends back to the underworld with her in his arms, and declares her his wife. Demeter, not knowing what happened to her daughter or where she is, searches the face of the earth for ten days with a torch in her hand. Her search is futile, and she is depressed. During those ten days, her wandering and depression result in negligence of the world’s crops, which wither. On the tenth day, she discovers that it was Hades who abducted her daughter, and that Zeus, the ruler of the gods, had some hand in the plan. Demeter is irate at Zeus, so she lets the crops and the rest of the world’s plant life die; and she promises never to restore fecundity to the earth until her daughter is returned to her. The people on the earth suffer famine, so they no longer pay homage to Zeus. Zeus, an egoist and a clever barterer, strikes a deal between Hades and Demeter-part of the year Persephone will live on earth with Demeter, and part of the year she will reside underground with Hades as his wife (where she is crowned Goddess of the Underworld). Demeter agrees to the deal, but secretly swears that during the months her daughter is underground, the world’s crops and plant life will wither and die; and during the months Persephone is on the earth, the crops and florae will flourish. This myth is ancient Greek reasoning for the seasons.
Ivy Alvarez is obviously well read in Greek mythology. In order to know the Demeter and Persephone myth well, one must know many of the other Greek myths. In Mortal, Alvarez updates the Demeter and Persephone myth in a series of poems. A story unfolds between a contemporary daughter and her mother, who are named Dee and Seph. Alvarez refers to the myth numerous times in the poems, but she takes the liberty of revising the myth in many ways. One of those ways is to have Dee abducted by Hades. As Alvarez’s story progresses throughout the series of poems, Dee and Seph age, and a major theme of the collection links with the title of the book.
In “a memory of corn” the crops that Demeter governs, the seasons, and the underworld are mentioned:
A sky blue with hysteria, roses blowsy and promiscuous, bees fat-bottomed and buzzing-it is a shaking, baking summer. Dee and Seph eat by the reservoir, the firepit coals sing to the meats roasting above them, which hiss and spit at them. Mother and daughter take a corncob each… the corns’ niblets darken in the heat…
In the poem before that one, Seph is born-via cesarean section-and the tale is told from Dee’s point of view:
they had to unzip me
to let the cat
out of the bag
blood bathed my belly
and baby Seph
I stopped counting stitches
forgave the marring
of my clean envelope…
Soon into the collection, we find the traditional Greek myth reversed:
The abduction of Demeter
This time it is Demeter Hades wants. He
drags her through the garden, throws her to
the ground. It opens like a mouth. Grains scatter
from her hand…
…the wet earth swallows…
Disappears. Persephone falls silent, the
garden grows cold…
Alvarez so aptly implements assonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme into her poems, they are unnoticeable-yet they add musicality to the poetry. Alvarez’s poetic ear is likely innate. Alvarez writes the poems from various viewpoints, which allows the reader an objective omniscience. The wonderful thing about this collection is that even if you are not familiar with Greek mythology, you can appreciate the book for its high-quality poetry, and the story for its narrative arc.
A Web site for Mortal can be found at www.ivyalvarez.com. The book can be purchased from Amazon.com.