In Waiting for My Life, her fourth volume of poems, Linda Pastan demonstrates with uncommon artistry the rich literary possibilities of the commonplace—ordinary situations, everyday experiences. Although much of her life is already gone, as are the children she has reared, the speaker in these poems is still waiting for her life to happen. Pastan renders the different aspects of this experience superbly. She writes about sorting through one’s dreams and speculating on their nature, their feel (“Dreams”); about reading to a child (“McGuffey’s First Eclectic Reader”); about the experience, as an adult, of being taught something by a child (“The Vanishing Point”). There are poems about seeing a child off to school, or to a job (“Helen Bids Farewell to Her Daughter Hermione”); about the fear that a child will come to harm; about resentment felt when departed children do not write or call. She writes about returning to familiar surroundings after an absence (“Returning”); about imagining the rest of one’s life (“Widow’s Walk, Somewhere Inland”). The titles of many poems suggest the everyday experiences and situations that occasioned them: “Letter to a Son at Exam Time,” “By the Mailbox,” “Meditation by the Stove,” “Weather Forecast.”
The titles alone do not suggest what Pastan makes of these ordinary occasions: poems of exceptionally sharp and vivid imagery, concise and telling. “We take from nature/ what we can,” Pastan writes in “By the Mailbox.” What she takes is apparently simple and familiar: tree, leaf, star, fire, bread, moon, snow, water. What she makes of these is profound.
The imagery of these poems is local in a double sense. Drawn for the most part from the speaker’s immediate surroundings, the images also function locally in the poems, lighting up the meaning of a particular verse paragraph or line, as this one found in the title poem: “Sometimes my life coughed and coughed:/ a stalled car about to catch.” That is the beginning and the end of the car image; it functions immediately and locally, and that is enough. In “Letter to a Son at Exam Time,” poems in a college textbook (in contrast to those that “leaf out” from her typewriter) are “so many leaves pressed to death/ in a heavy book.” The leaf image is elaborated no further. In “Meditation by the Stove” the scene is a kitchen where dough is “breathing under its damp cloth/ like a sleeping child.” The extremely effective image is local in that it is derived from the immediate scene and from the speaker’s situation as a mother and a homemaker. Rendered concisely, it is elaborated no further.
Pastan’s method is not to elaborate a single metaphor to the length of a conceit which dominates the entire poem. Instead, elaboration is achieved by economical movement from statement to image, and by allowing a locally functioning image to be quickly superseded by another, as in “Dreams.” Dreams are “the only afterlife we know;/ the place where the children/ we were/ rock in the arms of the children/ we have become.” The remainder of the poem consists of a number of images which explore various aspects of dreams. Dreams are
. . . as many as leaves
in their migrations,
as birds whose deaths we learn of
by the single feather
left behind: a clue,
a particle of sleep
caught in the eye.
They are as irretrievable as sand.
Thus the poem moves, statement alternating with image. The theme generates the image, the image reveals the theme.
The success of this alternation, elaboration, and variation is attributable to the wonderful control of theme and to the aptness of the concrete details in revealing the theme. Thus, in “The Vanishing Point” the notion of perspective is vividly rendered by images succinctly stated and quickly following one another. Perspective is “a penciled dot/ drawn on a picture plane/ where parallel lines/ converge.” The lines converging are like “holding two kite strings/ in one hand.” The penciled dot is then seen as
. . . that point
the eye drifts towards
on any horizon, the place
where all things lost
converge: the hairpins
your father took slowly
from my piled up hair
the night we met;
your face at five or seven;
and someone else—a voice
I almost listened to once—
who never asked again.
These diverse elements are perfectly controlled by the theme....
(The entire section is 1898 words.)