“Ethics” begins with the memory of an ethics class that Pastan herself attended. The focus of this memory is a question the teacher posed, and the rest of the poem is given to unfolding its answer. The poem’s language is specific. The question was asked, not simply every “year,” but “every fall,” and the image of autumn also unfolds in important ways as the poem proceeds.
In these lines, the question is put forth as the poet recalls it, in concrete, straightforward language that gives the past a sense of immediacy. It is a typical “values clarification” question, designed to stir a conversation about the relative value of life and art: which is of greater worth in “saving,” a famous painting or an old woman? The choice is obviously difficult and contains the seeds of several large ethical issues. However, the students are not engaged. So, instead of providing their response, the poem instead suggests their restless unreadiness to answer with any sort of conviction.
A clear sense of the students’ apathy is extended in these lines. As the poet remembers it, neither art nor old age seemed particularly worth their passion or time. Choosing life one year and art the next has little to do with authentic engagement in the question.
A sudden shift from the external classroom scene to the poet’s private thoughts occurs in lines 9 and 10. The poet lets the reader into her imagination of that hypothetical old woman, who is no longer anonymous; she has “borrowed my grandmother’s face.” The kitchen is the site of many images, if not whole poems, in Pastan’s corpus. Here, the grandmother leaves “her usual kitchen” in the poet’s internal reverie, and is relocated in a vague, rather unappealing museum. Leaving the “usual” is clearly uncomfortable for the old...
(The entire section is 783 words.)