Linda Pastan has chosen two quotations as epigraphs for The Imperfect Paradise, and they pose, quite interestingly, one of the essential quandaries for the speaker in the poems which follow. The first quotation is from Stanley Kunitz: “We have all been expelled from the Garden, but the ones who suffer most in exile are those who are still permitted to dream of perfection.” The second is by Wallace Stevens (from “The Poems of Our Climate”): “The imperfect is our paradise.”
The speaker in Pastan’s poems is definitely one of those who “suffer . . . in exile,” as she wrestles with issues such as aging, mortality, loss, and the difficulties of married love. Nevertheless, she also celebrates the ordinary, the imperfect, in other poems in this volume. The tension that exists between the two positions espoused by the epigraphs is the fertile ground for Pastan’s poems in The Imperfect Paradise.
The book’s first section, “In the Rearview Mirror,” opens with a poem that locates the human desire for permanence in works of art. In “Bird on Bough” the speaker begins with an epigraph about Chinese art that desribes the common image of a bird on a branch as “the bird-on-bough aspect of eternity.” Playfully at first, the poet muses over the phrase: “Is it a cardinal on willow,/ or a dove on peach?” What begins, ostensibly, as a poem about Chinese art now turns to the speaker’s desire for fixity in the midst of life’s flux. Other than in art, that fixity is found only in the remembered past, “in the eternity/ that is childhood,” where the speaker remembers, poignantly,
the branchwhich would neither grownor breakand the solitary birdwhich would neverfly away.
Section 1 introduces many of the themes of The Imperfect Paradise. “To a Daughter Leaving Home” vividly captures the moment of a child’s independence, here dramatized in learning to ride a bicycle, and the mother’s knowledge that the child is now lost to her. The mother speaks of her fear as the child pedals off, seeing her grow “smaller, more breakable/ with distance. . . .” The daughter, meanwhile, is oblivious to the mother’s fear and sense of loss. Joyfully, the rider screams
with laughter,the hair flappingbehind you like ahandkerchief wavinggoodbye.
Images seen in a rearview mirror are images receding as the viewer moves away. Childhood, children, parents, and lovers are some of Pastan’s subjects here. “Root Pruning,” “After an Absence,” and “Ceremony” confront the complexities of married love, another theme of the volume. “Root Pruning” starts with details of a daily walk and what at first appears to be the rather mundane subject of transplanting a holly bush. For Pastan, though, the mundane seldom remains simply that. The husband’s action in the poem, of digging a shovel around the roots of the about-to-be-transplanted holly, takes on the significance of metaphor. The wife/speaker regrets that she was not “root pruned.” Has the husband left? The wife feels that if she had “known some cutting edge” perhaps she “wouldn’t feel now/ as if the ground had simply/ disappeared.” The uncertainties of married love, its inevitable losses, are eloquently detailed by Pastan. In “After an Absence,” the speaker likens married love to a terrain, “a garden in the desert/ where you stoop to drink, never knowing/ if your mouth will fill with water or sand.”
“In the Rearview Mirror” closes the section to which it gives a name and, while focusing again on ordinary details, offers both an answer to the problem of a desire for permanence and a tone of hopefulness for the rest of the book. The speaker watches towns recede in the rearview mirror of a car, the towns “ceasing/ to exist the moment/ we pass.” Imagination, though, is joined with memory as one solution to the human dilemma. The speaker fills the houses of the lost towns with people comforting one another in sleep and performing the minor rituals of life:
the Motherwhose hands have learnedthe wisdom of kneadingtouches the Father
The pun on “kneading” is especially apt.
The poem closes with its focus on the horizon, the sun about to come up “in an endless/ relay race of...