Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“A Woman” begins by looking back thirty years ago. The speaker in the poem describes a scene and a “fearful” woman taking a child for a walk. The word “fearful” is the reader’s first indication of tone. The poet lists the specific particularities of his location, recreating the place as in a memory. Once Pinsky has established his composition of place, the woman’s character becomes apparent. She is a woman who is superstitious, warning the child in every sentence, dreaming of “horror and catastrophe—/ Mourners, hospitals.”
Following this is a detailed scene that the woman dreams of where she finds a family in her own room with their throats cut. Then the reader is brought back to the New Jersey shore where the child and woman have walked out to Port-au-Peck. They pass the “ineffectual sea wall,” something that tries to hold the sea back from spilling onto land but is described as “ineffectual.” Then the speaker in the poem describes the violence of the ocean meeting the river, the “exhilaration of water.” All this energy is suppressed into the next image of froth from a milk shake poured from a steel shaker into a glass. No energy or violence in the milk shake exists. It is another precaution, a holding back.
The poem ends with a final vision of restriction as the boy remembers a previous Halloween and the woman holding him back from going up the street with the other children in their cowboy gear. The irony is in the boy’s costume. A cowboy is known as a solitary man, living under no rules or restrictions, able to go off and return whenever he wants. One may ask then, does the speaker in the poem who vowed never to forgive this woman forgive her thirty years later?