Like many American poets since Walt Whitman, Linda Pastan has made poetry from her experience, but she has been much less optimistic than the Whitman who wrote “Song of Myself” (1855), “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1856), and “Passage to India” (1870). Starting with her first book, published when she was nearly forty, Pastan has seen the human individual as subject to such forces as genetics, mortality, gravity, climate, fate, and God. Not that the individual is powerless: In love, her characters can choose to be wise or foolish, passionate or subdued, faithful or not; and Pastan thinks highly of artistic and domestic accomplishments. Unlike Whitman, however, she never suggests that the individual can transcend mortal limits.
A survey of Pastan’s favorite metaphors suggests that most of their sources are autobiographical: her Jewish heritage, her childhood in New York City, her education and interest in literature, her medical knowledge stemming from her father’s and husband’s scientific interests, Greek and biblical mythology, a later interest in Asian culture, the flora and fauna of her adult life in the Maryland countryside, the behavior of her offspring and husband, and vacations near the ocean. However, to concentrate only on the origins of her imagery would be to ignore Pastan’s vision and craft.
Starting with her first book, she tried various means of shaping material into poems and of arranging poems into collections. The four parts of A Perfect Circle of Sun conform to the seasons. Aspects of Eve alludes to the biblical story of Eden, and in this book, Pastan relies more frequently on narratives, such as “Folk Tale” and “Short Story,” to present material in a more comprehensive, dramatic fashion. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s description of the process of mourning underlies The Five Stages of Grief, and Pastan continues the quest for Kubler-Ross’s final stage, acceptance, in Waiting for My Life and the new poems in PM/AM. The most compelling shaping principle in Pastan’s poetry, however, is mythology—especially the story of Adam and Eve, with its emphasis on the Fall (as in Aspects of Eve and The Imperfect Paradise), and the character of Penelope as depicted in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), legendary for her patience and domesticity. It is important to stress that the relationship between such myths and Pastan’s own life is reciprocal: the myths help to frame her experience, but she also questions them, returning obsessively to meditate on their meaning and reinvent them—to tell them, that is, in her own way as a result of her experience.
It would therefore be inaccurate to suggest that Pastan has tucked her entire life into a pattern prescribed by any single myth. Instead, one should place mythological allusions into the more comprehensive “story”—the interplay of Pastan’s persona and the forces affecting her. “Persona” is an important concept: Pastan has acknowledged that her poems are not strictly or merely autobiography, calling “the poetic ’I’ . . . more like a fraternal than an identical twin.” What one finds in her poetry, then, is the tragic story of human limitation. She mentions many forces she cannot control. In “Last Will” (from A Fraction of Darkness), she acknowledges that her children’s only important inheritance is “in the genes,” and in “balancing act: for N.” (from The Imperfect Paradise), she portrays the generations as acrobats “hooked together// by nerve/ and DNA.” While hospitalized in “Accidents” (from The Imperfect Paradise), she senses future accidents “waiting to happen.” “On the Question of Free Will” (from The Imperfect Paradise), one of her meditations on the Eden story, questions human freedom, hinting that “God’s plan” may prevail.
Her most frequent metaphor for human vulnerability is the weather. As she says in “Hurricane Watch” (from Aspects of Eve), “Some live in the storm’s eye only./ I rise and fall/ with the barometer,/ holding on for my life.” A Perfect Circle of Sun establishes the ambivalent vision of the annual cycle that applies to all of her work: Winter is both death and birth; the energy of spring can start growth or turn chaotic; summer, she says, is only winter in a “disguise of leaves”; and autumn is more a time for dirges than for harvest. Pastan’s habitual and resourceful use of the weather reflects her sense of mortality. In "Hurricane Watch," the persona inhabits “a storm cellar/ of flesh,” recalls “a blizzard of cells” in a microscope, and admits that “at times/ the hairs on my arm lift,/ as if in some incalculable wind.” Her pessimism is such that she says “I read my palm as though it were a weather map/ and keep a hurricane watch/ all year.” While fresh, lucid metaphors are essential to the success of this poem, Pastan’s characteristic use of short lines is worth noting here, suggesting her own tentativeness. However, in the preceding line, “Some live in the storm’s eye only,” she lets a sentence about others run unbroken to its end, suggesting their greater courage.
As Pastan charts the seasons, she often refers to trees. In “Each Autumn” (from A Perfect Circle of Sun) she writes, “We put our leaves in order,/ raking, burning, acknowledging,/ the persistence of time.” In “After Agatha Christie” (from Aspects of Eve), she implies her skepticism of summer by calling a tree’s leaves “its false beard.” Leaves ready to fall in “Consolations” (from The Five Stages of Grief) are “scrolls bearing/ the old messages.” “There is an age when you are most yourself,” she remembers her father saying, and in “Something Above the Trees” (from The Imperfect Paradise), which is written in a Malaysian form called pantoum, she wonders, “Was it something about the trees that made him speak?” The nearly unpunctuated poem “Family Tree” (from The Imperfect Paradise) plays on the traditional ubi sunt theme by asking, “How many leaves/ has death undone . . . ?” Throughout this poem, Pastan chants the names of trees, and she finally declares that she will not drink to the New Year, in which her mother will die and her grandson be born. Instead, she broods on burned leaves’ telling “the long story/ of smoke.”
In “Donatello’s Magdalene” (from A Fraction of Darkness), a fifteenth century wood sculpture of Mary Magdalene inspires one of Pastan’s most inventive and anguished tree metaphors. After describing the sculpture, Pastan asks how many of its branches were “stripped/ and nailed/ to make each crucifix?” In this case, by alluding to the suffering and death of Jesus, Pastan adds a religious or mythic factor to her usual symbolic equation of trees with mortality.
The metaphors already discussed—weather and trees—play the roles, respectively, of agent and victim in Pastan’s story of human limitation; however, one natural metaphor—the sea—contains both roles. References to the sea enter her work in Aspects of Eve. Many later poems have coastal settings, usually with beaches, allowing Pastan to pit the individual against the awesome force of the ocean and introduce the impermanence of sand to characterize human life and relationships. Moreover, she often applies the verbs “to swim” and “to drown” to the human condition.
Pastan’s most sustained metaphoric use of the sea occurs in the final four poems in the section of The Imperfect Paradise subtitled “Balancing Act.” In “A Walk Before Breakfast,” she dreams of an entire life like a vacation, “with the sea/ opening its chapters/ of water and light.” “The Ordinary Weather of Summer,” however, concludes pessimistically, with her imagining the last summer she and her husband will both be alive, when they walk up from the surf “on wobbly legs,” “shaking the water out of our blinded eyes.” “Erosion,” the last poem of the group, expresses both optimism and pessimism. “We are slowly/ undermined,” she declares, thinking of the slippage of sand, and adds, “The waves move their long row/ of scythes over the beach.” Nonetheless, the sea appears “Implacably lovely,” and the couple tries to stop the erosion. She has to admit, though, that “one day the sea will simply/ take us.” The final stanza contains the most rewarding metaphors. Pastan allows, “We are made of water anyway,” and says she has felt it “in the yielding/ of your flesh.” She also thinks of her husband as sand, “moving slowly, slowly/ from under me.”
Having acknowledged that the forces facing the individual are “implacable,” Pastan still places considerable emphasis on human endeavor and accomplishment. Her people raise families, sustain professions, initiate projects and hobbies, and love and hurt one another. In other words, though subject to the forces of creation, they are far from passive. Indeed, Pastan exerts herself metaphorically to depict human effectuality, even in the face of finally overpowering forces.
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