Poetry can be cathartic for both the writer and the reader. The art expression in poetry allows the writer to heal continually over time. The reader gets to experience Ms. Clifton’s life chronologically through her poetry. We get to feel full-circle the wounds, the scab, the debridement and finally the healing that happens after one exposes truths. Ms. McCallum shows a contrast approach to her past by taking a mythical route. Instead of taking a more personal approach, the reader may still connect through Ms. McCallum’s approach by the self-absorbed mother that is exposed in her myths.
Ms. Clifton is able to say a lot with little words, especially in “forgiving my father”. The poem consists of 3 stanzas addressing her father’s ineptness. In the first stanza the reader sees that during Ms. Clifton’s childhood her family was financially unstable. In this poem she gives recognition to her mother because of the mental and physical abuse she had to live with. In an interview with Ms. Clifton and Michael S. Glaser, Ms. Clifton says: “I knew that she was an unhappy woman” (Glaser 314). In “forgiving my father” Ms. Clifton shows heartache for her mother during this time.
Ms. Clifton has neither the ability nor authority to speak up to her father; therefore she hopelessly waits in vain for him to change and take care of their family. Ms. Clifton encourages students to write to help heal heartaches in life: “To write because you need it. It will somehow help you get through a difficult life” (Glaser 312). The first stanza reads: It is Friday. we have come to the paying of the bills. all week you have stood in my dreams like a ghost, asking for more time but today is payday, payday old man; my mother’s hand opens in her early grave and i hold it out like a good daughter. (208)
In the second stanza, Ms. Clifton graciously gives her father the benefit of the doubt by addressing that her father is the way he is because of his upbringing. When Ms. Clifton refers to him as “daddy” the reader can sense that this was going on during her childhood. In an interview with Ms. Clifton and Michael S. Glaser, Ms. Clifton says: “My mission is to heal Lucille if I can, as much as I can” (Glaser 312).
The second stanza reads: there is no more time for you. there will never be time enough daddy daddy old lecher old liar. i wish you were rich so i could take it all and give the lady what she was due but you were the son of a needy father, the father of a needy son; you gave her all you had which was nothing. you have already given her all you had. (208) In the third stanza Ms. Clifton is forgiving her father, she realizes that this was her parent’s covenant not hers.
She has reconciliation that while she and her family were dealt this hand, her father’s shortcomings were his alone knowing that he did not have it in him to rise above his lot in life, “and come up empty any Friday”. She also acknowledges that she had no control over decisions that were made before she was born.
Now that her father has died, she is able to look at the situation with greater perspective. It was her parent’s choices that created that life, her life and although she was a product of that life, the future and what she does with it is her choice. The last line of the poem reads: “and no accounting will open them up”, possibly meaning that overthinking the past and rehashing decisions already made and that she never had control over is a waste of her time and emotion. you are the pocket that was going to open and come up empty any Friday. you were each other’s bad bargain, not mine.
daddy old pauper old prisoner, old dead man what am i doing here collecting? you lie side by side in debtors’ boxes and no accounting will open them up. (208) Ms. McCallum is inspired by Louise Gluck whom also rewrites Greek myths. In Myth, Persona, & the Personal in Poetry by Shara McCallum, Ms. McCallum writes on behalf of Ms. Gluck’s poems: “In her poems, these stories have provided a way into, through, and out of the themes that are her core concerns as an artist: mother-daughter and other familial relationships” (McCallum 1). Ms. McCallum takes a different approach on the relationship between Persephone and Demeter.
An unusual but quite clever approach to the mother daughter relationship, the reader finds Ms. McCallum showing disloyalty in Demeter towards her daughter Persephone. McCallum has an interesting but unique approach on the way she copes with events in life. In Writing the self, the self that writes, Ms. McCallum addresses what poetry has done for her: “Poetry has allowed me to live these and other hybridized spaces, these identities in conflict, and to move away from the sentimental “tragedy of the mulatta” or of any figure of “exile” (McCallum 154).
In the first stanza instead of Demeter mourning because of Persephone’s absence, she is embracing the attention for others to feel bad for her. Persephone is left feeling alone and rejected by her mother, and recognizes her selfishness. Persephone shows sarcasm by mocking the public having pity on Demeter, when in reality she is being a selfish, careless mother. Persephone’s pain is multi-faceted; the realization that her mother does not have the capacity to be nurturing but also that she is self-absorbed and self-serving. In the poem the reader senses not only pain but intense anger.
You are all the rage these days, mother. Everywhere I turn, I hear Demeter in mourning, Demeter grieving. . . poor Demeter. (33) In Writing the self, the self that Writes written by Ms. McCallum, Ms. McCallum addresses her right of creative expression stating that, “If I need to change details of the story upon which a poem is based in order to have the poem succeed in its own right, I do it” (McCallum 154). Ms. McCallum writes about her parent’s upbringing in Writing the self, the self that Writes, and many times she is giving her parents “the benefit of the doubt”.
She mentions how she doesn’t know what it was like to grow up in a Jamaican society, therefore she cannot understand why her mother is the way she is. In the second stanza Persephone is making it clear that her mother set her up for rape. Ms. McCallum’s mother also grew up without a father figure; this may be an explanation for the need for attention.
Whatever the reason Ms. McCallum’s mother needed to be the center of attention, it was significant enough that Ms. McCallum included it in her works, albeit mythical. Always craving the spotlight, I know this is what you wanted: your face on the front page of all the papers; gossip columns (33) The third stanza shows more Demeter getting more and more attention as she “suffers” during the winter without her daughter.
Persephone shows the way Demeter is abusing attention by “letting her flowers go” as if she is mourning her lost child. Could it be that Ms. McCallum felt that her mother’s priorities were not in line with suitable motherhood? filled with juicy tidbits on what life was like before winter, old hags in the grocery store, whispering, how she’s let the flowers go, and (33) Even though myths are retold, they can still offer truth and reasoning.
In Myth, Persona & the Personal in Poetry, Ms. McCallum addresses the differences between today’s poetry and poetry during the mid-20th century: “That poetry might still reveal and speak out of the details of the writer’s life is not a particularly popular idea in the wake of the Confessional movement of mid-20th century American poetry” (McCallum 3). In stanza five, Persephone gets ignored when confronting her mother. Demeter responds to Persephone by brushing off her question, and covering up her actions by showing interest in Persephone’s life, trivializing the real issue.
You still won’t come clean. Passing me iced tea, instead you ask, How’s the redecorating? Are you expanding (33) In stanza six, Demeter goes on to show interest in Persephone’s life, but cannot look her daughter in the eyes. to make room for little ones? Fanning away flies, you avoid my eyes, saying, I’ve so longed to be a grandma, (33) In the last three stanzas Persephone reveals how she was put in the field by her mother. Persephone goes on to show Demeter covering up the evidence as if it meant nothing to leave her daughter behind.
The last three stanzas also reveal Demeter’s jealousness towards her daughter. In the poems “forgiving my father” by Ms. Clifton, and “Persephone Sets The Record Straight”, the daughter figure has power that cannot be tamed. In both poems, the results were the same in the end. In Ms. Clifton’s poem, the child (her) somehow knew that her words would not be heard by her father and chose to keep silent, except to the paper. Ms. Clifton, like Persephone felt neglected, lonely and unfortunate in their respective situations but her pain was contained inside herself.
Persephone tried to confront her mother and came away even more disheartened after her mother adds insult to injury by further dismissing petitions. Both poems are about our individual coping during our journey through trials. Regardless of the path, there can be no wrong door or wrong road to recovery. Just as each of us is unique in our reaction to life’s challenges, our expression of that journey is even more unique. In Ms. Clifton’s poem, she as the child had come full circle and was reaching closure. In Ms. McCallum’s poem Persephone was still in beginning stages of realizing that the mother she wanted was not what she had.
The similarity is that while they were not at the same place in their recovery, they both were heading on the same trajectory that would ultimately lead them to the same conclusion, that they never had any control over the situation and that they are only responsible for their own behavior. Ms. Clifton showed her expression of recovery early, thus building the foundation that would allow her to eventually come to an understanding that allowed her to finally forgive her father. Persephone attempted to confront her mother about her actions and wound up being even more frustrated.
While this initially seems like a setback, Persephone was strong enough to have the courage to stand up to mother. Her resilience might come from the knowledge that even though her attempt was met with failure, initially she did have the fortitude to challenge her mother’s actions and behavior. Attempting to change anyone is difficult, attempting to stop someone’s addiction or cure their mental illness is impossible. Even in the best situations, a person has to want to change their behavior or get help and even then there are many challenges and hurdles.
Through living, and by acknowledging that change is difficult to achieve even within ourselves, perhaps we can somehow be more empathetic to those who hurt us. This is not to say that one should accept pain caused by others, but rather choose not to be a victim and to realize that it is our life and our choice. Hopefully by the time one gets to the point in their life when they are making choices that are life altering, such as marriage or having children they will have the experience needed to make choices that will be beneficial not only for them, but for those who depend on them to provide love and stability.
Courtney from Study Moose