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Dear mom, love Persephone

MOTHER LOVE by Rita Dove Norton pounds 10.95
STILL only in her early forties, Rita Dove has just completed her two-year term as Poet Laureate of the United States. In 1987 she won the Pulitzer prize for Thomas and Beulah, a moving and colourful sequence which deals with the lives of her grandparents. She has also the curious distinction of being the only poet to give an official reading at the White House during the last ten years.

Dove's fine sixth collection is disserved by its title, gooey blurb and foreword: "I like how the sonnet comforts even while its prim borders (but what a pretty fence!) are stultifying," Dove confides. I see nothing prim or stultifying about such borders. Consider Hopkins.

This volume consists in variations on a theme taken from Greek mythology. Demeter, goddess of crops and fertility, lost her beloved Persephone to Hades, ruler of the Underworld. Eventually Persephone was allowed to return to her mother for part of each year. Demeter's grief brought winter to the world; with her joy at Persephone's return came spring and regeneration. This cycle, says Dove mysteriously, is ideally suited to the restraints of a 14-line form: "since all three - Mother Goddess, daughter-consort and poet - are struggling to sing in their chains." But it's worth reading on.

The poems explore the relationship of mother and daughter, moving back and forth through time and place, myth and the modern world; they focus on the mother's bereavement as the daughter passes into her own adult life, returning indeed like Persephone, but never again to the all-embracing, unquestioning love of early childhood: "When I ran to my mother, waiting radiant/As a cornstalk at the edge of the field/Nothing else mattered; the world stood still."

As the mother grieves, the daughter struggles for her necessary separation, her own secrets, in a Paris which is also the Underworld: "I was doing what she didn't need to know." The mother is finally aware that she cannot win back her child, but her anxiety can never end. Like a nagging nerve a refrain runs through the poems: "Are you having a good time?/Are you having a time at all?" And the desolate "Are you really all over with? How done/ Is gone?"

Elsewhere Dove muses on small comforts in loneliness, on the danger and excitement of encounter, on hatred and inanition and the nature of the inconsolable. She deploys her various voices - mother, daughter, chorus of neighbours, strangers - with skill, only occasionally resorting to typography to differentiate them. While the overriding mood is elegiac, there are wry, funny poems, narratives and dialogues studded with sharp truths. The Demeter myth serves as a fragmented background rather than a parallel, mingling legend and image as in a dream. A shop-window full of canaries fades into a half-remembered meadow of narcissi, bread and wine change to archaic vine and corn, the raped girl learns that she "can live beyond dying/And become a queen/whom nothing surprises."

The final sequence, "Her Island", describes a visit to Sicily and the site of Persephone's abduction, a black lake ringed by a motor race track. This strange image of violation harks back to a line near the start of the book, where the screams of Persephone and her friends drain consciousness "as the drone of an engine overtakes/the afternoon". Dove's technical mastery is especially apparent in these tightly structured Sicilian verses. The repetition of the last line of each poem as the first of the next imparts an urgent forward movement, in brilliant counterpoint to the summer languor she evokes with characteristic economy: "We turn inland as if turning a page in a novel:/Dry splash of cicada, no death from the sea."

There are infelicities: a woman wears "Foam curlers arraigned/ Like piglets to market." Piglets is splendid, but arraigned? Some lines are flawed by an injudicious word: "I will walk until I reach/Green oblivion ... then/I will lie down in its kindness/In the bottomless [my italics] lull of her arms."

Dove has, too, a destructive way of leavening intensity with a flippant phrase or pun - "not looking for the ironies we see in spades". Does she fear her own seriousness? Surely not. This is a vivid and passionate collection which demands repeated reading. Obliquely it celebrates joys past and offers its own stoic message of regeneration. Demeter will survive her grief and find new ways to live: "But it will not be happiness/For I have known that."