In this volume, Linda Pastan reaches back over her previous nine collections and adds a selection of her more recent work. It is a generous offering and a momentous achievement. With it, Pastan solidifies her place as the great autumnal poet. Her Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998 participates in and majestically caps the close of the last third of what has been an especially fertile century in American poetry.
Calling her poetry “autumnal” is not to suggest that there is a narrowness of range to her substantial body of work. Nor is the label meant to indicate anything about a season of life that Pastan is exploring in her seventh decade. Rather, hers is an autumnal sensibility; it has been so from the start, and why not? Autumn provides an enormous span for the imagination. It is, after all, in the more northerly climes, a full fourth of what one experiences in life. As a Marylander for many years (and that state’s poet laureate from 1991 to 1994), Linda Pastan has reveled in bud and blossom but more profoundly felt the chill of fall and the fall of leaf. However, it is not the season itself that dominates Pastan’s work (although it has an important place); rather, it is the autumnal mood. She is concerned with the way things (people, relationships, ambitions) change and fade and often decay.
Many of Pastan’s poems are charged with an urgency about time’s pressure; she persuades or reminds the reader that whoever he or she is, young or old, youth is past or passing. Green is going and gone. Thus, everything is to be grasped and valued in its fullness, its splendor, before one cannot taste and appraise, before it is no longer ripening or ripe. Pastan would agree with Wallace Stevens when he announces (in “Sunday Morning”) that “Death is the mother of beauty,” although Pastan’s tropes are less overtly philosophical. If people had eternity, she suggests, they would not have to make choices: Everything, endlessly, would come their way. However, people do not have eternity; they must decide what to honor and hold onto.
Not surprising, then, is the nostalgic strand in Pastan’s work, a strand that thickens in her later volumes. As she herself passes through the stations of life, she considers these stations carefully and remembers those dear to her whom she has now somehow replaced. She voices her roles as homemaker, wife, mother, grandmother, heir to Jewish-American traditions and sensibilities. She travels back to a Bronx childhood to find the wellsprings of the sophisticated woman and the accomplished artist. However, the perspective, by and large, is partly on the subject and partly on registering the sense of its being past or its constant passing. Memories glow in their very fading. The poet pulls images and events back from their vanishing acts, but the reader feels the counterpull of autumn, brilliantly evoked, toward winter and desolation. (The poems that live most fully in the present are the ones about wifely intimacy and its occasional frustrations. Pastan’s handling of these matters is never sensational or exhibitionist. She voices an earned wisdom of love’s delights and dilemmas. Taken together and placed in a separate collection, these poems would generate greater power than they do in a more dispersed volume.)
Is Linda Pastan, then, an elegiac poet? Perhaps not. Although mournful at times, she is less given to mourning than to a complex mode of celebration. What she fears, or quietly decries, is that one’s attentiveness can rarely do justice to the world’s plenitude of expression. Her success is in helping to battle sloth, quietly chastening herself and her readers. Do you not feel how it is all fading? she seems to ask. Will you not at least prolong this autumn with me, this autumn that is everything because we have waited so long already? We have always been too young, too naïve, too selfish, too distracted—but it is not quite...
(The entire section is 1611 words.)