The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 590

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“The Imperfect Paradise” is a sequence of six Shakespearean sonnets meditating on aspects of the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man. The sonnets, in order, are titled “Seasonal,” “In the Garden,” “Deep in These Woods,” “Thief,” “The Imperfect Paradise,” and “Somewhere in the Euphrates.”

“Seasonal” presents a contrast between the pessimistic perspective of the speaker and the more optimistic perspective of a second person, whom the speaker addresses as “you,” perhaps the speaker’s husband: “you” is also referred to as “My Adam.” The speaker asks this second person which season he considers the loveliest. He unhesitatingly chooses spring, while the speaker chooses winter, and the rest of the sonnet contrasts these perspectives and examines the evidence that each perspective considers decisive.

“In the Garden” opens with the question, “How do we tell the flowers from the weeds” and extends this botanical discrimination to how one chooses among people, such as Jacob—the chosen brother in Genesis 25-27—and Esau. The sonnet ends by noting how roses are dying while “dandelions and chokeweed multiply,” implying that the good and the beautiful is more fragile and ephemeral, while the base increases.

“Deep in These Woods” depicts a somewhat ambiguous dialogue between the speaker and a gardener. The speaker questions how a garden can be made to grow deep within the woods, and supposes that the gardener is concealing an axe and must be cutting down oaks in order to create room and light for the garden to grow. The speaker wonders if Adam also hid certain things from Eve.

“Thief” imagines a thieving squirrel, caught in the garden, who is removed five miles away, but then returns to where it was originally trapped. The squirrel is then compared to people’s fluctuating states of mind: doubts and alternating boredom and passion, which appear to be as uncontrollable as the thieving squirrel.

“The Imperfect Paradise” asks what would have happened if God had stopped creating after the fifth day, before humans were created. The speaker wonders if the wind could have adequately supplied the sound of lamentation and asks if God would have been satisfied or would have hungered for a “human crowd.” The speaker contrasts the “green hosannas of a budding leaf” with “the strict contract between love and grief.” The unthinking praise implied by the beauty of the natural world is thus contrasted with the bittersweet result of creating human life.

“Somewhere in the Euphrates,” the final sonnet in the sequence, contrasts two ways in which the modern person might relate to the Eden stories. In the first eight lines the poet speaks of “the rusted gates of Eden” still existing, buried somewhere in the Euphrates River. She imagines archaeologists “at awful cost” trying to find “a snakeskin or an apple stain,” searching out of the need to either prove the existence of these ancient legends or disprove and discard them. The poet calls such seekers “fools of science,” who must either have something literally in hand or not believe in it. On the other hand, the poet sees a value in “Geographies of what we only feel,” implying that legendary or not, the Eden story helps make humans what they are and is to that extent “true” and valuable. In the last six lines the poet looks outside at a gardener, on his knees planting flowers. This, she says, is as close as the gardener comes to prayer, and in a final line she conceives his actions as “Digging up Eden with a single hoe.”

Forms and Devices

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Almost all of Linda Pastan’s published poetry is free verse, so this sonnet sequence is quite unusual for her. As Shakespearean or English sonnets, each of the six poems that make up “The Imperfect Paradise” is composed of fourteen pentameter lines, arranged in a rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefgg. In the tradition of the sonnet sequence, much like Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella (1591), Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti (1595), or Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), each of Pastan’s sonnets is tied to a central theme, in this case the Eden story.

Pastan furthers the allusion to Eden, in four of the sonnets, by conceiving a dialogue between the speaker and another character who is a sort of Adam in the garden to Pastan’s Eve. Indeed, Pastan’s husband Ira was a gardener, and the poems, while clearly works of art, have some biographical resonance.

The first five sonnets are each formed around a question: Which is the loveliest season? How does one tell the flowers from the weeds? How does a garden grow in the middle of a deep and dark woods? Is the thieving squirrel like human moods? What if humans had not been created? In that sense the sonnets are meditations, speculations about basic questions raised by the story of Eden and the Fall, Adam and Eve’s sin and humanity’s banishment from the garden. The speaker does not give direct answers to these questions. Rather, she ends each sonnet with a somewhat ambiguous but richly suggestive image. A look at the first sonnet will illustrate this.

“Seasonal” asks the question, “Which season is the loveliest of all?” At first this seems to be an innocent and easy question, similar to whether one prefers chocolate or vanilla ice cream. However, from the answers given to the question, one can see that the issue at stake is no less than the essential nature of the world, and which season best represents this nature. “My Adam,” the person being spoken to, finds the world “a warm and charming place,” and his choice of spring as the loveliest season matches his basic optimism. The speaker, in contrast, finds the world “a garden of conspicuous waste” and thinks the “chaos of the snow” better represents this world.

The final image, in lines 13-14, illustrates a sort of synthesis but also a remaining tension between these perspectives: “Still, at your touch my house warms to the eaves/ As autumn torches all the fragile leaves.” The use of the word “still” suggests that the speaker is being convinced by the warmth of “Adam’s” touch that the world may be a good place after all; yet when this touch is compared, in the next line, to the torch autumn applies to the leaves, the speaker seems to be confirming her original idea even more strongly than at first. The apparent beauty of this world, it would seem, serves only to confirm and make more poignant an even deeper meaninglessness. The alliteration between “touches” and “torches” adds beauty and force to this conclusion.

The Imperfect Paradise

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Linda Pastan has chosen two quotations as epigraphs for The Imperfect Paradise, and they pose, quite interestingly, one of the essential quandaries for the speaker in the poems which follow. The first quotation is from Stanley Kunitz: “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 is by Wallace Stevens (from “The Poems of Our Climate”): “The imperfect is our paradise.”

The speaker in Pastan’s poems is definitely one of those who “suffer . . . in exile,” as she wrestles with issues such as aging, mortality, loss, and the difficulties of married love. Nevertheless, she also celebrates the ordinary, the imperfect, in other poems in this volume. The tension that exists between the two positions espoused by the epigraphs is the fertile ground for Pastan’s poems in The Imperfect Paradise.

The book’s first section, “In the Rearview Mirror,” opens with a poem that locates the human desire for permanence in works of art. In “Bird on Bough” the speaker begins with an epigraph about Chinese art that desribes the common image of a bird on a branch as “the bird-on-bough aspect of eternity.” Playfully at first, the poet muses over the phrase: “Is it a cardinal on willow,/ or a dove on peach?” What begins, ostensibly, as a poem about Chinese art now turns to the speaker’s desire for fixity in the midst of life’s flux. Other than in art, that fixity is found only in the remembered past, “in the eternity/ that is childhood,” where the speaker remembers, poignantly,

the branchwhich would neither grownor breakand the solitary birdwhich would neverfly away.

Section 1 introduces many of the themes of The Imperfect Paradise. “To a Daughter Leaving Home” vividly captures the moment of a child’s independence, here dramatized in learning to ride a bicycle, and the mother’s knowledge that the child is now lost to her. The mother speaks of her fear as the child pedals off, seeing her grow “smaller, more breakable/ with distance. . . .” The daughter, meanwhile, is oblivious to the mother’s fear and sense of loss. Joyfully, the rider screams

with laughter,the hair flappingbehind you like ahandkerchief wavinggoodbye.

Images seen in a rearview mirror are images receding as the viewer moves away. Childhood, children, parents, and lovers are some of Pastan’s subjects here. “Root Pruning,” “After an Absence,” and “Ceremony” confront the complexities of married love, another theme of the volume. “Root Pruning” starts with details of a daily walk and what at first appears to be the rather mundane subject of transplanting a holly bush. For Pastan, though, the mundane seldom remains simply that. The husband’s action in the poem, of digging a shovel around the roots of the about-to-be-transplanted holly, takes on the significance of metaphor. The wife/speaker regrets that she was not “root pruned.” Has the husband left? The wife feels that if she had “known some cutting edge” perhaps she “wouldn’t feel now/ as if the ground had simply/ disappeared.” The uncertainties of married love, its inevitable losses, are eloquently detailed by Pastan. In “After an Absence,” the speaker likens married love to a terrain, “a garden in the desert/ where you stoop to drink, never knowing/ if your mouth will fill with water or sand.”

“In the Rearview Mirror” closes the section to which it gives a name and, while focusing again on ordinary details, offers both an answer to the problem of a desire for permanence and a tone of hopefulness for the rest of the book. The speaker watches towns recede in the rearview mirror of a car, the towns “ceasing/ to exist the moment/ we pass.” Imagination, though, is joined with memory as one solution to the human dilemma. The speaker fills the houses of the lost towns with people comforting one another in sleep and performing the minor rituals of life:

the Motherwhose hands have learnedthe wisdom of kneadingtouches the Father

The pun on “kneading” is especially apt.

The poem closes with its focus on the horizon, the sun about to come up “in an endless/ relay race of light.” Whatever the speaker’s destination, the place ahead is

half resurrectedfrom childhood and waitingto be unwrapped like a withheld giftfrom the white ribbonof unwinding road.

Though “half resurrected” qualifies the optimism here, it diminishes it hardly at all. Section 2, “Rereading The Odyssey in Middle Age,” offers what is perhaps another answer to the poet’s search for permanence. Previous “answers” have been art, memory, and imagination. Now she focuses on literature, specifically the linking of our lives with myth in order to find significance in daily actions and eventual (and inevitable) losses.

The section opens with “At the Loom,” in which the speaker details Penelope’s actions as she weaves. Penelope is both magician and artist, her hands “like silhouetted birds.” She plays “like a harpist poised/ at the strings of an instrument/ whose chords are colors.” What Penelope makes is a “slow accumulation.” Surely her actions are meant to stand, in a sense, for what the speaker means to make out of minute, daily actions that seem meaningless but ultimately add up to some significance. Thus, Penelope weaves, “and patterns that seem/ random at first multiply/ into beauty.” Ultimately what Penelope “makes” actually clothes the speaker, and she is comforted. More, perhaps we are all comforted: “. . . though the chilly stars/ go bone naked/ we are clothed.”

The second section is a powerful one, using the backdrop of myth to highlight and deepen the poet’s concerns. The title poem of the section again uses Penelope and her weaving to stimulate, this time, the poet’s own musing. The speaker has always thought of the weaving as a shawl, though it was Laertes’ shroud Penelope wove. The speaker recognizes her own misreading: “We make our myths from whole cloth anyway/ and make ouselves the heroines/ of others’ imaginings.” Recognizing this function of literature, the poet then moves into Penelope’s mind, wondering what faithfulness means, wondering if Penelope’s son Telemachus will find a shroud-weaver for himself. By night, Penelope unravels what she has made by day, to put off her suitors.

The section closes with “The Suitor,” on a less than optimistic note. The poet recognizes here that each myth contains “a story/ that no one bothers to tell. Merely one of the crowd of Penelope-worshipers, the suitor of the poem never voices his desire and thus is never noticed by her. His passion and desire will “end badly”; he is only one of the many “in that unplumbed sea/ of wasted blood.”

“Balancing Act,” the book’s third section, is indeed the center point, providing the middle ground between the two positions posed by the opening epigraphs. Ordinary life is described here, and celebrated to some extent, but these are the book’s weakest poems, often not reaching the powerful metaphoric force of other poems in the book. “The Ordinary Weather of Summer” and “A Walk Before Breakfast,” however, are exceptions to that statement. Both find, in the backdrop of sea and beach, significant room to speak of earlier Pastan themes.

In “The Ordinary Weather of Summer,” for example, the speaker catalogs the woes of summer’s heat: dogs panting, insects “at every window,” and a couple quarreling. Mornings are cooler, the couple more amicable, and thus the cycle continues. Yet loss is not far from the surface. What the speaker sees is the inevitable end: “So we move another summer closer/ to our last summer together. . . .” The people are seen as fragile and helpless, like swimmers who walk up from the beach “shaking the water out of our blinded eyes.”

It is in the book’s fourth section, “The Descent,” that Pastan’s voice achieves its most powerful level. This section is the volume’s true emotional center and raison d’être. The section opens with poems cataloging imaginary fears, but closes with a fear realized: the death of the speaker’s mother. “Accidents,” the opening poem, takes a hospital room as its setting, with the speaker recovering there after an accident. Other hospital visits have been in maternity wards, but this time there is no baby,

only my own life swaddledin bandagesand handed back to melike any new thing.

The speaker’s brush with death has made her ever aware, however, of the world’s dangers; there are other accidents out there “waiting to happen.”

Most notable in the fourth section are “The Descent,” “Family Tree,” “The Deathwatch Beetle,” and “Elegy.” Pastan’s plain, clear language is the perfect counterpart to the deep emotion faced in “The Descent,” for example. The opening lines recall “To a Daughter Leaving Home,” where the bicycle-rider pedals away. Now it is the mother who is disappearing:

My mother grows smallerbefore my eyes, recedinginto the past tense slowly.It feels like an escalator down,she whispers, half asleep.

The speaker stands at the bedside, trying to become accustomed to her role as survivor. “Fear is using/ up the oxygen. I must/ get used to the change in the air. . . .” Where does the poet locate meaning? Perhaps pain can be used, paradoxically, to alleviate pain:

how strange it is that beautycan become the achein the bone that provesyou are alive.

Pastan reaches for no easy answers here. The poet’s touch at the end of “The Descent” is deft and delicate, and she faces it all with unsparing tenderness:

it is hard to see wherethe descent will end,hard to believeit is death holdingher elbow with such care,guiding her all the way down.

“Elegy,” too, finds Pastan in rare voice. She never mentions her mother, simply describes the changed landscape after her death. Gravity, with all that word’s resonance, is the poet’s subject, and how things rise in spite of it. She understands their struggle in new ways, now:

I knowwith what difficultyflowersmust pull themselvesall the way uptheir stems.

The poet has been dreaming, not of resurrections (again, no easy answers here) but “of the slow, sensual/ slide each night/ into sleep.”

The mother’s death provides an apt segue to the book’s last section, “The Imperfect Paradise.” Death is what prevents life on earth from being paradise, and death was also Adam and Eve’s punishment for sinning in the original garden. Pastan now turns to Adam and Eve, especially Eve, and imagines their life after the Fall. Their original sin can sometimes be forgotten by them (in moments of love, and passion), even after being locked out of the garden:

On a far treefaint as a mooncradled in branchesan apple hangs.

In “Fruit of the Tree,” the second poem of the final section, the poet recognizes the immensity of Adam and Eve’s transgression, how it prefigures all man’s later overreaching: “Eve would be the mother/ of Newton and Bohr.” Pastan links nuclear physics to the fateful apple, and the poem ends ominously, with a stockpiled apple exploding and “releasing the smell/ of the whole/ dying year.”

In The Imperfect Paradise Pastan attempts some formal poems. Section 4 ends with a pantoum (“Something About the Trees”), and the volume concludes with a sonnet sequence from which the book takes its title. They are six English sonnets: “Seasonal,” “In the Garden,” “Deep in These Woods,” “Thief,” “The Imperfect Paradise,” and “Somewhere in the Euphrates.” Unfortunately, these concluding poems are not Pastan at her best. The language seems stale and tired, lacking emotional intensity.

Ultimately, however, The Imperfect Paradise is an impressive book of poetry. Sections 1 and 4 are especially fine and show Pastan’s plain language and clear sight paying off impressively. The poems about her mother’s death are a tour de force of free verse and carefully modulated language and emotion.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 24

Sources for Further Study

The Georgia Review. XLII, Summer, 1988, p. 407.

Library Journal. CXIII, May 15, 1988, p. 85.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, September 18, 1988, p. 42.