The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466

Linda Pastan’s “An Early Afterlife” is a free-verse poem consisting of two twelve-line stanzas. The poem is preceded by an epigraph from Horace, stating that “a wise man in time of peace, shall make the necessary preparations for war.” In the poem itself, Pastan transposes the peace-war opposition into an opposition between life and “afterlife,” that part of life that occurs—in Pastan’s special definition—between official leave-taking and death. In Pastan’s analogy, in good years (the time of peace) one should make oneself ready for the bad years of decline and death (war).

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The poem begins by asking, “Why don’t we say goodbye right now,” while life, presumably, is still good. There follow three sentences beginning with the phrase “We could. . . .” Each succeeding sentence describes something advantageous the subject could do if he or she were to say good-bye right now. Point by point, the speaker argues that the good-byes said now could be expressed at leisure, more perfectly, more elegantly, than if they were to occur under forced circumstances.

Yet, in what seems at first like a contradiction, Pastan cites an example of forced good-byes as the example of what she wants. She alludes to the characters in Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach and its 1959 film adaptation, who, on the shores of Australia, await the arrival of a radiation cloud from the hydrogen bombs that have wiped out the rest of the planet’s population. These characters, anticipating an imminent death, are able to “perfect [their] parting.” They are able to do this, one may infer, because of the critically adjusted time window they have: long enough to say good-bye, but not so long that they let any distractions keep them from saying good-bye.

Most people, it may be supposed, forget about or block out thoughts of eventual death. Life is passing agreeably, mortgages are paid, and children are in school, and humans simply forget about the fact that they will eventually die. It is to these people that Pastan especially addresses herself, arguing that now—before it is absolutely necessary, before it is too late to do it correctly—is the time to say good-bye.

The second stanza describes in detail the afterlife following this proposed perfect good-bye. The arteries start closing down, or the “rampant cells” stampede, as in cancer, but, according to the speaker, it “wouldn’t matter.” However, “we would bask/ in an early afterlife of ordinary days” because “Nothing could touch us.” It is as if, having given the perfect good-bye, having rejected this life by choice, any additional life is a sort of bonus. If one has no expectations, nothing in life can disappoint. Thus, Pastan’s poem proposes a hypothetical way to increase the pleasure and diminish the pain of life.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 415

The form of the poem strongly reinforces its content. As previously stated, the poem is divided into symmetrical halves. The first twelve lines call for an early good-bye to this life and describe the ideal nature of this good-bye; the second twelve lines describe the afterlife and its imperviousness to tragedy. Thus the poem embodies the life-afterlife division it advocates.

As is her trademark, Pastan devises interesting language to maximize the impact of her ideas. In the second line she alerts us to the “fallacy of perfect health.” This suggestive phrase implies that perfect health is an oxymoron, since even the most healthy individual is—from a long-term perspective—dying. In the second stanza, picturing the body’s decline, Pastan uses the simile of “arteries closing like rivers silting over” and the metaphor of “rampant cells stampeding us to the exit.” One can understand why doctors prefer terms such as “arteriosclerosis” and “inoperable cancer,” but Pastan’s ability to translate deadly mutations of the body into powerful figures that strike the imagination helps to make this a significant poem. There is an interesting contrast in the two figures mentioned above: The silting river suggests a slow, almost imperceptible danger; the rampant cells suggest panic in a theater. Yet fast or slow, the body’s ways of declining are equally deadly.

It is interesting that Pastan’s speaker consistently addresses the reader with the pronoun “we,” as in the line “Why don’t we say goodbye right now.” If the speaker had used the pronoun “I” the reader might be likely to dismiss any of the reflections as having personal relevance. If the speaker had used “you” the poem would turn into an obnoxious set of instructions from a disembodied and patronizing superior. However, the consistent use of “we”—it is used eight times in the poem—creates a bond, a closeness, even a tenderness, between speaker and reader. An idea that might be received indifferently, or rejected out of hand, becomes appealing because of this bond, introducing someone who will share the experience with the reader. In fact, the speaker goes so far as to imagine having sat with the reader through the film version of On the Beach, holding his or her hand while watching this set of characters say good-bye. Pastan’s poem itself creates a similiar experience, reminding readers of their fate but also making that knowledge the catalyst for an instant bond of considerable depth with a similarly fated human being.

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