A Fraction of Darkness

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.

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...

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

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

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