Heart’s Frosty Discipline: Persephone’s Decision (2010)

“Now this particular girl
During a ceremonious april walk
With her latest suitor
Found herself, of a sudden, intolerably struck
By the birds’ irregular babel
And the leaves’ litter.

By this tumult afflicted, she
Observed her lover’s gestures unbalance the air,
His gait stray uneven
Through a rank wilderness of fern and flower;
She judged petals in disarray,
The whole season, sloven.

How she longed for winter then!–
Scrupulously austere in its order
Of white and black
Ice and rock; each sentiment within border,
And heart’s frosty discipline
Exact as a snowflake.

But here — a burgeoning
Unruly enough to pitch her five queenly wits
Into vulgar motley —
A treason not to be borne; let idiots
Reel giddy in bedlam spring:
She withdrew neatly.

And round her house she set
Such a barricade of barb and check
Against mutinous weather
As no mere insurgent man could hope to break
With curse, fist, threat
Or love, either.”

–“Spinster” by Sylvia Plath

This Sylvia Plath poem has been floating around in my head and my heart for quite some time. The concept of rejection of emotions as unruly and undesirable intrigued me. I wondered – what would lead a woman to willingly disengage from the realm of emotion? I quickly dismissed the explanation of madness as too easy, too tidily convenient, too much society’s catchall scapegoat.

I left that question to simmer in my subconscious and turned my focus to other stories. One of those stories was the Persephone myth. The explanation of the very first winter (and all subsequent winters) brought about by Persephone’s abduction by Hades (traditionally referred to as “The Rape of Persephone”) was another story of strong emotion. The story then goes that she is tricked into eating 6 pomegranate seeds, thus imprisoning her in the Underworld for 6 months of each year. Persephone was so beloved that the earth itself (personified by her mother Demeter) mourned her temporary loss each year through wintering.

An interesting exchange to note is that whereas the character in the Spinster poem yearns for winter’s austerity, finding emotions messy, the earth/ Demeter undergoes the powerful emotional state of grief, and is ultimately left frozen.

Further research into the character of Persephone yielded that in the epic poem The Odyssey, she is portrayed as “the dread queen of the Underworld, whose very name it was forbidden to speak”. Odysseus instead names her as the Iron Queen. Clearly there is a conflict between Persephone as the victim who was “tricked” into eating pomegranate seeds vs. Persephone the dreaded Iron Queen.

One might speculate that spending significant time each year in the Underworld could easily result in Persephone’s becoming the Iron Queen, but in this dance solo, I speculate differently. Perhaps she never was a wilting lily of a woman who was tricked, but perhaps she *welcomed* and embraced the chill, starkness of this emotional winter, as a means of coping with the tumultuous emotional state brought about by her rape/ abduction. Instead of the naive girl being fooled into eating transformative fruit (the stories of Eve and Snow White come to mind), we have the formative image of a woman with the indomitable strength to cauterize her own heart in her will to survive. Perhaps the pomegranate was the Iron Queen’s decision.