Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
(Remember: go straight to school.
This is important, stop fooling around!
- The beginning of the sestet (the final six lines of the sonnet) marks a sharp shift in tone and speaker. That's obvious because, well, there is literally a break in the stanzas.
- But those parentheses really stick out. It's as if the speaker is taking us aside, or taking someone aside, and telling us the point of all this. This isn't just a big story of some mythical goddess. This is an intimate, confidential conversation between the speaker and the reader.
- Who's talking to whom, though? This could be the voice of Demeter, wishing she could remind her daughter all these things before she gets hurt. This could be a flashback of Persephone being told how to act. This could be a flashback to the poet's own childhood, hearing her own mother lecture her. Or maybe this is the poet telling us, speaking to each of us as if she were our mother. Either way, we've definitely got some mommy issues.
- The first clue that this is classic mom-talk is that all the verbs switch to the imperative mood. She's giving orders now: "Remember...go...stop." Sound familiar? It's supposed to! These clichés connect Persephone's story with our own. She's brought this eons-old myth and dropped it right in your living room, with your mom wagging a wooden spoon at you before you leave to catch the bus.
- Line 10 in particular gets our attention. It's easy to picture this speaker having to grab her child's cheeks and bring her face close: HEY! Listen to momma! Quit jumping on the bed! Quit repeating everything I say! Quit picking your nose! (No? Just us? Fine.)
- The two commands here, though, accuse the reader (us) of not paying close enough attention. She demands that we lean in and hear her advice.
Don't answer to strangers. Stick
with your playmates. Keep your eyes down.)
- The next line of the poem extends the same idea established in the previous two; clichéd advice from a motherly figure. Dove tosses in a slant rhyme ("answer" and "stranger") to add in a little extra sappiness, but we definitely get the point by now.
- The interesting thing about these two lines is the new shift at the end of the parenthetical statement. After all the straight-forward lines we've come to expect, suddenly Dove enjambs line eleven, leaving that verb "stick" off on its own.
- Up until now, the advice this mother has given has been practical and obvious. But now things get a little fuzzy. She recommends that the daughter stick with her own playmates. Doesn't that sound a little biased? A little over-protective? This is also the first time we get explicitly called out with the second person pronoun "your."
- This is the moment when we begin to see that this mother isn't some god-like, perfect, always right figure. She has her own issues.
- The final piece of advice is probably the most suspicious: "keep your eyes down." Do parents really want to teach their children this? These last two commands are probably the best indication that we're listening to the poet's own experience as an African-American girl growing up in the middle of the Civil Rights era.
- Just as we saw the complexity of Persephone's desire to live dangerously, we see the psychological conflict of a mother who would limit her daughter's experience just to be sure she was safe.
This is how easily the pit
opens. This is how one foot sinks into the ground.
- The last two lines of the poem seem obvious enough. It's like a fairy-tale or a fable—it ends with an easy moral to make sure kids don't misbehave. "See how scary the world is? Eat your cooked carrots!"
- Well, we're about to blow your mind. With pronouns.
- All pronouns, including the relative pronoun "this" that gets repeated twice in these final lines, have what is called an antecedent. That's the word that came before that the pronoun refers back to.
- We know what you're thinking: "I came here for a poem analysis and I got a free grammar lesson? Sweet!" We know. Just wait—it gets even better.
- See, in the poem, a lot rides on what "this" is. "This is how easily the pit opens. This is how one foot sinks into the ground." If we don't get what this is, we don't know what the moral is.
- So, wise guy, what is "this"? It's the daughter's supposedly careless, dangerous desire to be special, to go off on her own pulling up poisonous flowers that turn out to be the devil. Easy enough.
- Is it possible, though, that Dove is also implying that the mother's oppressive over-protection helped pave the way for her daughter's recklessness? Maybe Demeter pushed her daughter away by nagging her all the time.
- Aren't parents responsible for their children? Who's really at fault? Not so easy now, huh?
- Ultimately, this is a poem about a daughter and a mother and their desires that are both undeniable and dangerous. Also, totally conflicting.
- In other words, this is Serious Business.