A Fraction of Darkness

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1459

The ldquo;fraction of darkness” which concerns Linda Pastan in this volume of new poems seems to be the entropy implicit in living things; to those who hold these things dear, this threat, as it were, is evident. Perhaps because she knows that she will lose everything that is important to her, including her own life, Pastan presents the critical focuses of her life with a clarity and intensity meant to preserve them—not simply to acknowledge them—as long as possible. She has much to say, therefore, about writing and books, about the sensuous details of her life insofar as they are connected to art and to living itself, and about dying and death.

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The experience of writing is essential to Pastan, and she plumbs various aspects of it. For example, she expresses what it is like to be stymied as a writer by comparing it to what it is like, in her view, to be prolific as one. Nature resists her attempt to transform it into words, while a poet like William Stafford is accommodated by nature much in the way that water accommodates a competent swimmer. Pastan also lays bare what writing is like at a young age. In “The Writer at 16,” she shows how absorbed the writer can be with himself, imagining that he has a kind of godlike control over his life, which in reality (Pastan suggests) is difficult and elusive. Art, moreover, has a strong connection to physical being. Using the myth of Orpheus to make her point, Pastan considers the poet’s body to be a musical instrument upon which the passion-defined content of art plays. Writing, finally, is an embodied tension between pattern and variation, the predictable and the unpredictable. It bears witness to sudden changes, such as a cold spell interrupting spring or a cold man unexpectedly warming up to his wife (“Prosody 101”).

Pastan makes it clear that she has an abiding love for books. What they have meant and mean presently in her life she details in “Realms of Gold.” As a child she was fascinated by and envied the flawless, blessed children in the books she read. Even when recess ended, she would try, despite its uncertainty, to hold on to this vision. As an adult, she uses a book to hide behind when she is angry at someone, she imagines herself as a kind of book propped up by her tombstone and, paradoxically, hopes that even then someone will read to her. Artworks other than books also attract her attention. She examines the relationship between objects in nature and the art that incorporates them. Considering the Impressionists, she concludes that things in themselves are static and that without light their art—perhaps any art—would not exist. The relationship between art’s models and its rendering of them finds expression in “Japanese Lantern,” where the texture of a real tree is indistinguishable from that of the tree in a Japanese print in the poet’s possession. This intimacy between the outside world and the world that a book creates is the motif of “At the Still Point” (which alludes to T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets). Spring’s behavior interrupts the poet while she is reading, ruffling the pages of her book, and in the end, Pastan finds the source of this interruption analogous to the book itself. All this functions to show how important books are to Pastan. The extent of her love for them is shown ironically in “Dream Plants” through the cunning she and her husband bring to gift-giving: He gives her plants knowing that he will end up taking care of them, and she gives him books knowing that she will end up reading them.

Pastan’s love for sensuous details—whether the experience in which they occur is aesthetic or simply physical—is evident throughout her poems. Though many of these details are connected with her daily surroundings, it seems, and the books she reads in the comfort of those surroundings, foreign milieus refresh her love for particulars and remind her of home. The desert landscape in “The Sonoran Desert, January” is rich with heat, feverish colors, and water as a newly discovered element—all of which contrast to the damp and more somber features of the landscape to which she is accustomed. The same kind of contrast is featured in “Market Day,” where the absorbing items of a French market are juxtaposed to similar items in the market Pastan knew as a child in the Bronx. The sensuousness of such details is sometimes delicate and sometimes pungent. The varied sounds of musical instruments in “Overture” recall the piquancy of small but vivid events remembered, half-remembered, and present, while some of the excitement her husband evokes in her stems from her associating him with the earthiness he brings in with him from the garden.

Death is one of the strongest motives behind Pastan’s acknowledgment of—indeed, hunger for—the textures of things and the events that present them to her. In these she intuits the presence and meaning of death. She is drawn to light passing over objects in “In the Kingdom of Midas,” for death is the result of the light’s passing. Death, in fact, is waiting to be born in things, as though it were an egg implanted in them (“After Reading Peterson’s Guide”). Pastan uses a series of commonplace events to show how death reveals itself. “Routine Mammogram,” for example, focuses on a patient who, despite a clean bill of health, is devastated by the truth of how fragile living flesh is and, losing her naïveté, realizes that she will never again be able to forget that death is as close to her as her own body. In a clinic, moreover, one is reduced in his own eyes, humiliated, an object with which death tinkers. He may rebel against the news of his impending death and the strictures designed to put it off, but he is still its victim. Such a victim may undergo a remission, as the cancer-stricken woman does in “Remission,” but death, though hidden, remains close by and inevitable. The people to whom one is close die, and one finds oneself in the position of watching them do it, in much the same way that they find themselves becoming insidiously remote from life in a doctor’s waiting room.

Fear of death and grief for the things and people who undergo it are an important motif in several of Pastan’s poems. Added to the grief she feels for a dying parent is the fear that comes from the realization that she is next in line. She admires the recklessness with which the writer John Gardner lived his life, but that recklessness caused his death and is thereby a cause of fear. Her own dying occurs to her in “Low Tide,” and neither grief nor fear seems to underwrite the poem, but a kind of melancholy resignation, as she identifies herself with the residue on a beach as well as a frontier where the watchfires are burning out.

Three of Pastan’s poems have the word “last” in their titles. Each poem suggests her final (and personal) view on the subject of death. “Last Words” treats the poet’s imagined final utterance ironically, seeing it as melodramatic and useless. “Last Will,” on the other hand, makes a testament to the life the poet leaves behind and shows her wishing to be part of it through memory and use, with the hope that her favorite possessions in the hands of the living will allow her the status of a benign ghost. In this vein, “What We Look at Last” imagines a familiar and hospitable place for the poet to go after she is dead. Indeed, death might be—ironic as it may seem—a bit like the cruise the female relatives in “Departures” feel impelled to go on, as though fashion, if not elegance, required it.

What is most attractive about Linda Pastan’s poems is the presence of hard-to-see but critical commonplace events and objects in them. Though there is a certain cuteness in her treatment of these things—at times an irritating coziness—her style remains clear and uncluttered and features metaphors and similes as fresh and surprising as they are apt. Some are brief, such as the comparison of flowers to battle flags furled underground in “Duet for One Voice.” Some are extended, such as the comparison of a coronary bypass in the poem of that title to a traffic detour. In most, if not all, cases, this gift for illuminating analogies links Pastan to contemporary European and Latin American poets and distinguishes her among her more long-winded American peers.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14

Booklist. LXXXII, September 15, 1985, p. 103.

Library Journal. CX, September 1, 1985, p. 203.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, July 19, 1985, p. 43.

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