Lake Avernus (Italian: Lago d’Averno) is a volcanic crater lake near Naples, Italy. A glorious sight and popular tourist attraction, it is nearly two miles in circumference and 200 feet deep. But for the ancient Romans, it was the tunnel to the underworld. The front door, or more formal entrance to the underworld was in a nearby cave; from there to Cocytus, the black river where Charon the ferryman waited, to escort the dead and the rare living visitor through the tunnel of terrors of the anteroom.
In Virgil’s “Aeneid,” it is from Lago d’Averno that Aeneas descends into the underworld. As such, there have been a long line of poets (before and after Virgil) who chronicled perilous expeditions to the underworld, and still poets who continue to tunnel through the depths of hell to bring back the riches of meaningful poetry, perspective, and substance (not just Hades’ gems).
In Louise Glück’s volume of poetry Averno, she owns a unique perspective in the myth of Persephone. Glück tells us “the tale of Persephone…should be read / as an argument between the mother and the lover-“; that is, between Hades (god of death), and Demeter (goddess of nature), whose daughter was plucked from the sunlit earth and carried down, down, down… to the underworld.
Of her collection of poems, Nicholas Christopher of The New York Times lauded, “The 18 poems in ‘Averno,’ rich and resonant — with intricately linked imagery, overlapping themes, recurring characters — form a unified collection, but one in which each part never fails to speak for the whole. The conclusion of ‘Prism,’ precisely pitched, deftly syncopated, is but one example of that, and it captures the complex, haunting power of these poems…”
In her poem October, Glück casts through the darkness to find a wisp of hope:
It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.
at work, though I am silent.
misery of the world
bounds us on either side, an alley
lined with trees; we are
companions here, not speaking,
each with his own thoughts;
behind the trees, iron
gates of the private houses,
the shuttered rooms
somehow deserted, abandoned,
as though it were the artist’s
duty to create
hope, but out of what? what?
the word itself
false, a device to refute
perception-At the intersection,
ornamental lights of the season.
I was young here. Riding
the subway with my small book
as though to defend myself against
this same world:
you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.
—by Louise Glück
Read the entire collection of poetry in Averno here.
Try It: A Tunnel to the Underworld Poem
Any adventure worth its salt will be perilous at times. It is hope which keeps the adventurer steady through a formidable landscape. Write a poem about a heroic adventurer on a quest. This steely soul will take a harrowing journey through a tunnel into an underworld. Perhaps you will be the hero of this story. What challenges will meet them along the way? What about hope? What lies at the end of the tunnel?
Thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s poetry prompt. We soaked in the tenderness of Maureen’s poem:
(August 19, 1927 – January 11, 2018)
We spread her ashes
In the ocean, each handful
Our forgiveness marked
What hollows love fills
To bridge the differences
Of mother and child
—by Maureen Doallas
Photo by Thomas Schlosser. Creative Commons via Flickr.
How to Write a Poem uses images like the buzz, the switch, the wave—from the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”—to guide writers into new ways of writing poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology and prompts included.
“How to Write a Poem is a classroom must-have.”
—Callie Feyen, English Teacher, Maryland