Prayer to Persephone by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Be to her, Persephone,
All the things I might not be;
Take her head upon your knee.
She that was so proud and wild,
Flippant, arrogant and free,
She that had no need of me,
Is a little lonely child
Lost in Hell,—Persephone,
Take her head upon your knee;
Say to her, “My dear, my dear,
It is not so dreadful here.”

From the collection, Second April, published 1921.


Thomas Hardy once said,  “America had two great attractions: the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay” and her career certainly reflects such a sentiment. In 1923, Millay (1892-1950) became the third woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She grew up with a mother who nurtured her ambition and often read to her works by Shakespeare and Milton. At her mother’s encouragement, Millay entered her poem “Renascence” a contest and placed fourth. Upon the poem’s publication, she earned a scholarship to Vassar College, which she began attending at the age of 21. Millay went on to published 17 books of poetry—the first in 1917 and the most noteworthy in 1920, A Few Figs From Thistles: Poems and Four Sonnets. Figs from Thistles put a spotlight on her in a rather peculiar way. In the collection, she expressed the view that women had every right to sexual pleasure and no obligation to fidelity, a view that reflected her relationship with her husband, Eugen Boissevain, a self-proclaimed feminist. Boissevain and Millay had an open relationship and Millay lived openly as a bisexual woman.

“Prayer to Persephone” is one in a series of poems entitled In Memorial to D.C. and written for a friend who had recently passed away. The poem alludes to Persephone’s abduction, a myth often referred to as “The Rape of Persephone.” Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, Greek Goddess of the harvest. Hades, God of the underworld, fell in love with the beautiful Persephone and carried her away, believing that Demeter would not permit her daughter to go willingly. Waiting for Hades to return Persephone, Demeter is thrust into a misery so great that she neglects her obligations to the earth and crops begin to fail. The cries of hungry people urge Zeus to demand that Hades release Persephone. Yet, before complying, Hades tricks Persephone into eating pomegranate seeds and because she has consumed the fruit of underworld, she is obliged to spend a third of the year in Hades, time which often coincides with the colder months of the year.

Despite the allusion to Persephone, the speaker of this poem is not necessarily Demeter. Rather, it is an individual, perhaps a parent who has lost a child. Millay’s poem is enriched by imagery and language that captures the grief of loss. She juxtaposes the image of a young girl “so proud and wild, / Flippant, arrogant and free” against that of a “little lonely child / Lost in Hell.” Not only do we see the loss of Persephone’s vigor, but also see the way in which she has been isolated. The speaker calls to Hades, asking him to comfort the girl with rhyming lines that seem to sing to the reader, “‘My dear, my dear, / It is not so dreadful here,’” an effect quite fitting for one of the Jazz Age’s most famous poets. The poem’s rhyme scheme reflects the idea of transition (AAABAABAACC), the idea that people exist in a continuous state of alternation that inevitably ends on a different plane (i.e. Hades). The repetition of words ending with “e” sounds adds a youthful element to the poem, evoking memories of childhood rhymes. The innocence of this evocation contrasts with the somber subject of the poem, reminding us that life is not only full of contradictions, but it is also defined by the constant process of loss—loss of innocence, love, and eventually ourselves. Though the poem is certainly mournful, there is still a blossoming of hope at the end. The speaker does not imagine her Persephone trapped and isolated, but rather she is in the company of another, being comforted. Millay invites us to view death with less fear.

–Arlette Hernandez

Cantora Nocturna (Night Singer) By Alejandra Pizarnik

La que murió de su vestido azul está cantando.
Canta imbuida de muerte al sol de su ebriedad.
Adentro de su canción hay un vestido azul,
hay un caballo blanco, hay un corazón verde
tatuado con los ecos de los latidos de su corazón muerto.
Expuesta a todas las perdiciones,
ella canta junto a una niña extraviada
que es ella: su amuleto de la buena suerte.
Y a pesar de la niebla verde en los labios
y del frío gris en los ojos,
su voz corroe la distancia que se abre
entre la sed y la mano que busca el vaso.
Ella canta.


The dead woman who died from her blue dress is singing.
She sings drunk on death to the sun of her intoxication.
Within her song there is a blue dress,
there is a white horse, there is a green heart
tattooed with the echoes of her dead heartbeats.
Exposed to all of the ruins,
she sings with a lost girl
that is the woman: her amulet of good luck.
And despite the green mist on her lips
and the cold grey in her eyes,
her voice corrodes the distance that opens
between thirst and the hand that looks for the glass.
She sings.


Translated by Laurel Myers.
Originally published in Poesía completa (2001) by Lumen.

Alejandra Pizarnik is considered one of Argentina’s premiere poets from the mid-century. Born in 1936 in Buenos Aires, she attended university but never received her degree, instead choosing to study painting and poetry. Pizarnik was a prolific writer, publishing eight books of poetry and various essays by the time of her suicide at age 36. Her most famous books include Los trabajos y las noches, Extracción de la piedra de locura, and El infierno musical, in which the themes of loneliness, childhood, pain, and death dominate her work.

With simple language and movements, Alejandra Pizarnik creates a bizarre moment in the first line by introducing the “Night Singer” as a dead woman. The absurdity that follows throughout the rest of the poem comes from this detail about her death: she “died from her blue dress” (line 1). This odd occurrence primes the following images to be accentuated with one color, spanning blue, white, green, and grey. She “sings drunk on death” (line 2) about a white horse and a green heart tattoo, continuing Pizarnik’s theme of death throughout her poetry. The song is as bizarre as the poem itself, especially with the mention of the “lost girl / that is the woman” singing along. This “amulet of good luck” brings focus to the woman’s childhood and innocence. The imagery of her corpse concentrates on her face with the “green mist on her lips” and “the cold grey in her eyes,” describing intimate features with an observational, analytical tone, although the green mist adds to the fantastical whim and strangeness. The “Night Singer” ends with what seems to be a positive purpose, bringing “the glass,” the wanted object, closer to “the hand,” the seeker. Pizarnik ends the poem with a simple declaration, summarizing the poem and the dead woman’s action in two words: “She sings.”

–Laurel Myers

“What the Girl Wore” By Kathleen Driskell

At the store, on the hanger, the blue dress must have fallen
like water to a froth of frilled hem, its bodice as smocked
as a christening gown. A season out of date, her mother chose it
from our local department store chiefly for the high collar,
but I knew it was a dress Lisa wouldn’t have been caught
dead in. Just hidden under the neckband of lace, the circle
of her purple necklace, each dark bead a fingertip of efficient
bruise that we already knew about anyway, and simply went on
imagining, as we, her classmates, filed past the white coffin.


Republished with permission from the author.


By foregoing the dramatic in favor of both simplicity and vivid imagery, Driskell creates a sense of mystery that is dominant throughout “What the Girl Wore” until the final line of the poem, when it is finally revealed that the blue dress with a bodice “as smocked/as a christening gown” is to be worn by the recently deceased Lisa. In an effort to mislead the reader, Driskell maintains an unusually apathetic tone, however, some of her double entendres suggest a more complex reason for the poem’s lack of emotion: perhaps Driskell is mirroring our tendency to suppress emotions in the face of great tragedy and sadness. Furthermore, the speaker’s impassivity could carry implications of Lisa’s own alienation from those around her prior to her death—while the speaker is familiar enough with Lisa to understand her fashion preferences, she refers to herself merely as one of Lisa’s classmates as she “file[s] past the white coffin.”

The feeling of suspense created by Driskell’s ambiguity reaches its height with her description of “each dark bead a fingertip of efficient/bruise that we already knew about anyway.” While this image engenders certain suspicions concerning the cause of Lisa’s death, the indifference with which the speaker reacts raises additional questions of the onlookers’ familiarity with such a sight.

Driskell heightens the impact of her ultimate revelation by withholding mention of Lisa’s funeral until the final line of the poem, and in doing so, she ensures that the conclusion of “What the Girl Wore” is as troubling as it is unexpected.

Award-winning poet and professor Kathleen Driskell serves as the Associate Program Director of Spalding University’s brief-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program, where she is Associate Professor of Creative Writing. Driskell’s work has appeared in many nationally known literary magazines, including North American Review, The Southern Review, and The Greensboro Review. Her poem “What the Girl Wore” is a companion piece to “Why I Mother You the Way I Do”, from her collection Seed Across Snow from Red Hen Press. On her blog (, Driskell explains the profound effect that the deaths of three friends during her teenage years have had on her writing, noting her experience in dealing with these tragedies as a major influence in “What the Girl Wore” and “Why I Mother You the Way I Do.”

— Sierra Terrana

A Child Said, What is the Grass? by Walt Whitman

A child said, What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped, Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

First published in Leaves of Grass, 1855

To begin, Whitman is asked by a child what grass is. Whitman is not sure how to respond, but he begins simply, suggesting that grass is like the “flag of [his] disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.” Thus, he connects grass to one of his own positive qualities: his optimistic nature. This appreciative view carries to the second stanza, when Whitman suggests grass is a “scented gift…designedly dropped” from God, or even a “produced babe of the vegetation.” Through each of these lines, Whitman’s view of grass grows (no pun intended), leading him to provide social commentary on race relations by saying it grows “among black folks as among white,” and ends by describing it as “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Thus, grass in Whitman’s poetic eye is connected to birth, to disposition, to religion, to society, and finally to death. It’s no wonder this all-encompassing object of nature serves as part of the title of this incredible piece of work.

Walter “Walt” Whitman was born on May 31, 1819 in West Hills, New York. Leaves of Grass served as a radical change from the poetic norms of the time. Its open, controversial subject matter caused a ripple in American society, causing many to dismiss the work. However, Whitman’s poetry caught the eye of many greats, such as Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott. Whitman continued to work on Leaves of Grass until his death in 1892. 


–Virginia Kettles

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

          love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees, 

the mountain and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things. 


Originally published in Dream Work in 1986. Republished with author permission.

A simple declaration negating the motivation behind most actions opens “Wild Geese,” paving the way for heartfelt encouragement that addresses the reader specifically. Before reaching this point, however, Oliver also rejects the idea of repentance, putting the powerful grasp of regret behind her. She reveals her own truism: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.” She continues with a request that would bewilder most of us used to responding to an inquiry about our state of being with “I’m good,” disregarding any second thought. Her offer of revealing her despair in return reveals the acceptance and understanding that prevails in these verses. The movement to the natural world expands the point of view with the repetition of “Meanwhile.” Meanwhile, when we are lonely, in despair, and full of regret, the world is expansive and welcoming. The invitation, in this case, is extended by the wild geese for whom the poem is named, with their “harsh and exciting” calls, inviting you home.

A prize-winning and prolific poet, Mary Oliver was born in a small town in Ohio. She attended Ohio State University and Vassar College before her career of writing poetry. Oliver has received copious awards throughout her life, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984 for her book American Primitive, the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems, and the New England Booksellers Association Award for Literary Excellence. Mary Oliver was described as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet” by the New York Times. 


— Laurel Myers