The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Returning” is a free-verse poem of twenty-one lines divided into three seven-line stanzas. The title raises some key questions about the poem: Where is the main character of the poem (a woman identified only as “she”)? Where is she returning from? Where is she going? On one level the answers are easy. Linda Pastan employs an extended analogy, based on a parachutist returning from the sky to “the coarser atmosphere of earth,” to present this returning. It is more difficult to decide to what other process the parachutist’s descent provides an analogy. The first stanza sets up this analogy and brings the parachutist from the clouds down to treetop level. The second stanza awakens the subject’s eyes and nose to the sensations of this coarser life of earth. She smells the pines, and her husband starts to “swim” into view. In the final stanza, the parachutist lands in her garden and pushes the chute aside, signaling the end of the flight. In the last three lines, the poet likens the discarding of the parachute to the way “she pushed the white sheet/ from her breasts/ just yesterday.”

The first line (“She re-enters her life”) provides a clue to the nature of the analogy. The subject has been away from her normal life, perhaps in an altered psychological or physical state. In fact, the place she has been seems to suggest a Platonic ideal: Apparently, it has a very fine atmosphere as contrasted with “the coarser atmosphere of earth.” In this other reality, she experienced “the sensual shapes of clouds” whereas in her “life” she finds only “cloud-shaped trees.” Furthermore, the shapes of the trees are deceptively inviting, for the soft leaves are “transitory” and the branches are “sharp.” Indeed, the place where the poet has been is clearly more pleasant than her normal world. Stanza 2 presents a dawning earth consciousness as the smell of pines pierce “the surface of memory” and a vision of the speaker’s husband “starts to swim/ back into sight.” Stanza 3 identifies both the duration and quality of the poet’s flight: “brief but brilliant.” All of this suggests that the speaker is “returning” from a sexual climax.

Returning Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The understated effectiveness of Pastan’s poem is quite remarkable. She conveys the sexual experience so discreetly that it could be completely missed. Except for the last three lines, it appears only as distantly reflected in the “sensual shapes of clouds” and the “silky” texture of the parachute. The lofty imagery used to describe the ecstatic state, in other words, is quite separate from any hint of the physical mechanisms that play a large part in producing that state. The major device of the poem is an extended analogy between the descent of a parachutist and the experience of a woman after sexual climax. In that sense, this poem is like a miniature allegory with one kind of experience described through the language of another kind of experience. Understanding one thing in terms of another is a traditional technique of poetry, whether in simile, metaphor, analogy, or allegory. The use of an extended and consistent simile or metaphor through the whole poem is less common.

Pastan’s choice of imagery is quite interesting. Through most of the poem, the parachutist is pictured against a natural backdrop: clouds, trees, branches, leaves, pine scent, and a dark lake. Against this backdrop, the husband “starts to swim/ back into sight” at the end of stanza 2. In stanza 3, the garden provides an interesting transitional image of nature under human control. It is also described as “their” garden, the woman’s and her husband’s, and seems to indirectly allude to the mutuality of the sexual act. This leads to the final, completely human image of the white sheet juxtaposed with human breasts. The image of breasts, often associated with fertility and nurture, works well with the garden and the possibility of procreative sex.