After Persephone

Heaven got sweeter, its paperweight curve
star-crazy at its purple center.
She’d found a god, a weapon in the works.
Something I hadn’t noticed in the field
fought out of the layers and took her.
I tore away the land’s every color,
withered the smallest grasses. Every heartbeat
went blank, I dismantled the ticking.

They only say what I took, not what I gave:
roots and strong light, glory
in the single shoot, green currency
of the just-born. From the irredeemable,
the buried—this is how a self gets made.
Remember, that darkness contained the seed
sealed in the swollen red globe.
Hell had to pay.


Cleopatra Mathis
from her book What to Tip the Boatman?
The Sheep Meadow Press. New York. 2001.
Used by permission of the poet.


For an English Classroom

Lesson Plan for Cleopatra Mathis’s “After Persephone”
by Nancy Jaynes
St. Andrew’s Episcopal School
New Orleans

I teach middle school English, and I would consider this poem to be a tough sell for the age group, although I think with adequate preparation and discussion, it could work. Most middle school students are fascinated by, and have some familiarity with, Greek mythology. However, in order to prepare my students for this poem, I would begin with the personal.

I would ask my students to raise hands if they’ve ever loved a dog or a cat, or if they’ve ever loved a much younger brother or sister. I’d ask them to share the feelings associated with those experiences. I’d try to subtly tease apart the threads to arrive at more than love, but also a sense of obligation, an awareness of the other’s dependence upon them. I’d ask how that sense of responsibility for the other, of the other’s vulnerability and dependence, made the love emotion even more intense.

Then I’d ask them if anyone knew the story of Demeter and Persephone. I’d have a brief version of the story available to share, depending on student responses. Next, I’d ask them to brainstorm a list of feelings that Demeter might have after Persephone had been snatched away. I’d then have students partner up to write a monologue in the voice of Demeter. I would call it “Writing a Righteous Rant.” This would take a full class period, possibly spilling over into a second period, depending on the class length.

During the following class period, we would share their Righteous Rants, and then read Cleopatra “s poem, “After Persephone.” Some vocabulary would need to be discussed as the poem is read, probably requiring a couple of readings. I think their own rants would bring clarity to some of the more esoteric aspects of the poem.

Finally, as a follow-up, I’d share a website called “Poems That Go.” It involves the mixed media combination of the text of poetry with computer technology and images. There’s a mixed media piece called “After Persephone” there, but it appears to use different text. I’ve played with it a bit, and I think that the text that the viewer sees changes depending upon when and where the viewer clicks on the image provided. Prior to arriving at the visual/poem, there’s a brief summary of the Persephone/Demeter story. I think the site is pretty darn cool.

For an Upper Level English Classroom

Lesson Plan for Cleopatra Mathis’s “After Persephone”
by Laurie Williams

I would use this poem to show how to explicate a poem.

Before reading this poem in class, I would start a class discussion by asking students what they know of the Persephone and Demeter myth.

We would then look at the poem on the page without reading it.

I would ask the students to number the lines on the left-hand side of the lines.

They would notice that each stanza has eight lines. If they were unfamiliar with the term octave, I would have them add that to their list of poetical terms.

Before reading the poem, I would ask them if the way the poem looks on the page parallels any aspect of the Persephone and Demeter myth.

I would hope that they would be able to see the visual correlation between the two places Persephone has to live after she eats the pomegranate seeds in the underworld.

Then I would have the students read the poem to themselves. After, we would read it aloud sentence by sentence. And the students would make note of where the sentences begin and end in each octave. We would make note that each octave has three sentences. This would begin a discussion of the symmetry of the poem.

I would then have students go around the room reading one line at a time. Each student would read at least one line and I would go through the poem line by line at least twice. Because of the symmetry we noted earlier, I would ask students to notice variations in the number of syllables in each line.

I would then ask of there is one speaker in the poem or two? An argument could be made for either case.

We would then go through the poem and “translate” it—writing out what we as a class think each line or sentence “means” (without torturing it to death). This would include the movement of the poem, imagery, allusions, rhythms, shape, speaker(s), etc.

Students would then write, in class the next day, their own explication of this poem.

For a Math Class

Lesson Plan for Cleopatra Mathis’s “After Persephone”
by Laurie Williams

This poem has two eight-line stanzas with three sentences each. Students would examine the symmetry in the poem and note the variations.

In each stanza, students would identify the number of words per stanza and the number of syllables, and note the difference.

What is the ratio of syllables to words in each stanza?

What is the overall number of syllables per stanza?

What is the difference between the number of syllables in each stanza?

Then they would look at the sentences in each stanza.

How many words are in each sentence?

How many syllables?

What is the difference?

What is the ratio of words to syllables?

Is there a significant mathematical difference between the two stanzas that would indicate different speakers?

stylometry–the practice of applying statistical analysis to linguistic style

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