The Five Stages of Grief

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

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....

(The entire section is 1634 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

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.