Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401

Pastan chose two epigraphs to open her book The Imperfect Paradise. The first, from Stanley Kunitz, reads, “We have all been expelled from the Garden, but the ones who suffer most in exile are those who are still permitted to dream of perfection.” The second, from Wallace Stevens, reads, “The imperfect is our paradise.” The Stevens quote emphasizes Pastan’s focus on the deeply flawed nature of the world, while the Kunitz lines point to Pastan’s yearning for something better than what this world offers, a beauty that does not fade, a vitality that does not grow old and die.

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The questioning format of the first five sonnets implies that, although tending to a strong pessimism, the speaker still has an open mind about essential questions, still hopes for better answers than she currently has. The last sonnet asks no questions. Rather, in the first eight lines, it scoffs at archaeologists who take the Eden story too literally and must either have it proved historical or throw it out altogether. The speaker (and presumably Pastan as well) disagrees with this stance, implying that the “Geographies of what we only feel” are important and valuable, even if based on legend. For Pastan, it seems, the Eden story is a vital vehicle for raising essential questions about the world. Were humans created by God? Was there a “Fall” in the garden, resulting in all the imperfection that one sees in the current world? Why do humans have such a love for beauty if they are so flawed? The Eden story, true or not, allows one to talk about all these questions, to talk about humankind’s essential identity as a species, its origin and nature, as well as the nature of the world humans inhabit.

However, after all the discussion—in this case five and a half sonnets—there are no clear answers. The poet ends by looking out the window at “Adam” in the garden, “Digging up Eden with a single hoe.” This is a richly suggestive and appropriate image with which to end the sequence. The “single hoe” in the immensity of the garden suggests something of the difficulty in understanding the world. Human tools—historical, scientific, theological, literary—are disproportionate to the task. Nevertheless, one picks away at the remains of this Eden, creating what moments of beauty one can, through such activities as planting flowers and writing poetry.

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