Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1634
In her book The Five Stages of Grief, Linda Pastan combines concrete and ethereal imagery as she records her feelings about the steps in the gradual acceptance of death. Each stage is represented by its own group of poems; each group has its unique tone and dimension of feeling. Although the images peculiar to the different stages do overlap, they are utilized in different contexts and so evoke varying emotions. The book jacket depicts a winding staircase whose upper steps cannot be seen, though the balcony is in partial view and the lower steps are in full view. The reader is invited to ascend in understanding as he learns about the poet’s comprehension of mortality and moves with her through “Denial,” “Anger,” “Bargaining,” “Depression,” and “Acceptance.”
The poems in “Denial,” the first stage of grief, vary in their handling of experience but are united by the thematic concept of the nonacceptance of death. The cumulative effect of the deaths of friends and relatives upon the poet, the recapitulation of her failures, and knowledge of her own mortality are recorded in a highly personalized manner. Intertwined with these concrete images are ambiguous words, phrases, and stanzas which clarify the reader’s understanding of denial. One is drawn into the poet’s experience, but the ambiguity and universality of the experience enables him to relate in principle, as well, to the denial of death.
Many facets of denial are dealt with in this section. In the poem “Funerary Tower,” the poet, visiting her father’s grave with her mother, defies her forty years by the recollection of childhood. She carries these remembrances, not the grave site, home in her arms. Furthermore, she denies change and growth, which connote the passage of time and, therefore, death, after she returns home from a trip to Europe. This experience is masterfully delineated in the poem “After.” Then there is the homelier image of an egg; like the figures on Keats’s Grecian urn, it too is frozen in perfection, until it “succumbs” briefly to life and then death. Still another poem questions the reality of life after death; this leads to an escape into the imagination in order to reaffirm evanescence or perhaps to freeze one’s thoughts in still perfection before “we go down in darkness.”
Presenting the reader with the difficulties and fears of being a poet, Pastan, in “Voices,” describes how she is preoccupied with writing; she composes, for instance, in a car and drives through a stop sign. Her fears are focused on the denial of the end of her writing career and, in a juxtaposition of images, she considers burying her poems to preserve her talent. Another form of denial occurs in “Adultery” and “Argument” as the poet refuses, by declining to listen to unpleasant words or to recognize dark shadows, to acknowledge the estrangement of her friend and lover. Like a cat living its ninth life, on her ninth journey, in the poem “Waking in Norway,” she studies nature with a calculating eye and denies life. She only sees death and separation—even grass grows like the hair of the dead after they are buried. Finally, in the last poem, “Self Portrait at 44,” she copes with the imperfections in her life by inviting her failures to sit down beside her; then she escapes by falling asleep.
The absolutes of life and death do not exist in parallel structure within the first stage of “Denial.” Rather, it is death, not life, that is the absolute. Through varied images of a father’s grave, a lover’s absence, an egg, journeys to Europe, adultery, argument, and self-evaluation, the poet attempts to quell the force of change in each. Such concrete objects, as they are used as subjects of denial, only reaffirm death as an inevitability.
In the second stage of grief, anger, there is a feeling of disgust with human relationships, including those of the family. She also views the poet within her as a stranger. Death is a reality that cannot be denied, and recollections of conflict, disease, and personal mistakes incense and irritate her. Emotions and time wasted in senseless argument, prejudice, and illogical thinking appall her; however, these thoughts, as poems, are kept from becoming too maudlin through the use of unusual, topical metaphors. For instance, in “Death Is the Final Consumer,” Pastan looks at her life as a thing that has a registered hand-gun. When she tries to flee from it into death, which is the only product that is one hundred percent pure, she sees television antennae gleaming like crucifixes. The poet becomes one of Nader’s Raiders fighting angrily against mortality.
Another poem in “Anger” that typifies the poet’s irritation with people is “In the Old Guerrilla War.” The conflict between her husband and her son is analogous to a war in which she tries unsuccessfully to bring about peace. She irons handkerchiefs of truce and rolls socks “instead of bandages.” When she intervenes, the combatants become irritable and are united only by the “family tree,” breaking bread, not their wrath with each other. Through this experience she can merely survive, not live, as she is angered by the realization that in this wasteful period she is an ineffective mediator who will be a field soon “where all the flowers/On my housedress/Bloom at once.” Since she cannot affect any action, it is not surprising that in the final poem in this section, she wants to be left alone—off stage with the scenery—and orders everything to go away.
Moving to another stage, “Bargaining,” Pastan observes the processes of life and death in terms of the flow of all living things that have gone before. The macrocosmic and microcosmic views of human existence are placed in perspectives of the historical past that help her to come to terms with her life. As she explores the past, whose visions of history vary from Judaic religious beliefs to the American bicentennial year, she learns from the evolution of thoughts. Thus, the histories of experience are related to her understanding of life cycles.
The two poems that best exemplify Pastan’s personalized view of mortality as a part of the universal cycles of life are “Physics for Poets” and “Terminal.” In the former, the motion of electrons around a nucleus is compared to the moth that circles around a light or earth that revolves around the sun. Both movements mean eventual death or destruction; and this idea is internalized by the further extension of the analogy when the poet defines and bargains with the thought of dying herself. “Dreams revolve around our heads—/dark planets,/dark questions;/is God so stingy with form?/Is each of us no more than metaphor/for something else?” The poet, who finds no immortality in herself, but sees a glimpse of life in her form, clutches tightly onto another in the final lines of this poem. The other poem, “Terminal,” a treatise about life and death, is somewhat reminiscent of Ecclesiastes. The themes of arrival and departure are primary; it is the law of the seasons or nature, and thus leaves, flowers, and snow all fall. The “. . . light from a star/that started towards us/ a million years ago/arrives at last.” She is learning to bargain with her own mortality, and through a universal view, she can understand.
However, the poet has not yet learned how to cope with this knowledge and so enters the fourth stage, “Depression.” The primary movement in this series is one of falling, although once again the images are concrete. Paperweights, mirrors, the radio, animals, hotel stationery, a television late show, final examinations, and a high school reunion serve as metaphors for her feelings. This depression has affected her memories and they are fragmented. When these bits and pieces are placed together, a whole pattern is created for the reader who can, then, understand the poet’s depression. Though the tone and quality of the poetry remain consistent, there is a nervousness and anxiety that underlies each poem. Individually, they lack, like depression, the panache of those that have preceded.
In the final section, “Acceptance,” the vitality of movement returns to the poems. Pastan’s acceptance is not passive; rather, she is in accord with the knowledge of her mortality. For example, in “Old Woman,” when her griefs sing to her, she sings back; in “Caroline,” death is compared to a coat that can be buttoned by the wearer who then will be ready to depart. Several of the other poems in this section help the poet to review her relationships with her family and come to terms with the past decisions in her life.
Especially delightful is “Arithmetic Lesson: Infinity.” Preceding the poem is an excerpt from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: “In nature’s infinite book of secrecy/a little I can read. . . .” These lines are fitting since the cadence of this work suggests a light Shakespearean piece. Numbers are assigned characteristics, and images that have been utilized previously in other poems depict the special nature of the numbers “one,” “two,” and “three.” Generally, even and odd numbers are classified, as are the ways in which the poet counts impressions. She writes: “The negative numbers squabble/among themselves; imaginary numbers/count the number of kisses/that dance on the head of a pin./And the parade goes on.”
The book concludes with a poem that delineates the five stages of grief and gives its title to the book. Like it, the poem is masterfully written. Although Pastan’s work is not as sensual as Jong’s, nor as feminist-oriented as Plath’s, her poetry has the common touch. The reader, upon finishing the book, wishes to ascend the winding staircase of imagery once again.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 29
Best Sellers. XXXVIII, May, 1978, p. 59.
Booklist. LXXIV, May 1, 1978, p. 1407.
Kirkus Reviews. XLVI, February 1, 1978, p. 168.
Library Journal. CIII, February 15, 1978, p. 465.
New Republic. CLXXVIII, February 4, 1978, p. 39.
Saturday Review. V, March 4, 1978, p. 33.
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