Endings are written before beginnings, Linda Pastan writes in “Because.” Thus, she prefaces her 1981 collection Waiting for My Life with first an “Epilogue,” then a “Prologue.” In this her latest gathering, the newest poems precede the earlier ones, with the prefatory poem “PM” coming before “AM.” It might therefore seem appropriate to consider the new poems first, but after the opening section of new poems, PM/AM reprints selections from Pastan’s first four volumes, making it possible to observe, for the first time in a single volume, Pastan’s growth and development as a poet by considering the poems in the order of their publication.
Pastan’s recurring subjects and themes are present in her first collection, A Perfect Circle of Sun (1971). She writes of ordinary, everyday situations and experiences which, as they recede in memory, take on the quality of dreams. Her subject is what Ralph Waldo Emerson, in “Nature,” calls “our daily history.” Pastan’s treatment of this subject bears out Emerson’s view that “a fact is . . . the most beautiful of fables.” Thus, for Pastan, a remembered house is “solid as a dream at the moment of waking.” Locating art in life, she writes a poem while her father is dying and compares his dying to a parking meter about to expire.
Other aspects of daily life, especially the experiences of a young wife and mother, are the subject of poems in Pastan’s first collection. The unfamiliar experience is best understood in terms of the familiar and close at hand. In “After X-ray,” she imagines her bones as “waiting their hour/ patient as hangers, pushed to the back of a closet.” In “At the Gynecologist’s,” with her legs “caught in these metal stirrups,” she goes “galloping towards death/ with flowers of ether in my hair.” She writes “Notes from the Delivery Room,” asserting that “Babies should grow in fields;/ common as beets or turnips.”
There is a concern for tradition and an awareness of the metaphorical nature of ritual in her poem about Passover: “I set my table with metaphor:/ the curling parsley—green sign nailed to the doors.” There is concern for—at that time—contemporary events such as the Vietnam War, and a tendency to see the contemporary against the background of biblical history. Poems such as “Between Generations,” “October Funeral,” and “Journey’s End” express a concern for family and children and a sense of loss: “My children fill the house with departures.” All movement is downward, in the direction of death. In these early poems, one finds the concise and telling images, especially in similes, so characteristic of Pastan’s poetry: “all my old faults/ drowned once like a bagful of cats” and “the two laughters/ locked like bumpers/ that still rust away between us.”
While these first poems have their individual excellences, Pastan’s first collection nevertheless gives the impression of a group of miscellaneous poems. They do not gather strength from one another but remain as isolated achievements.
Aspects of Eve (1975), Pastan’s second collection, is not so much a movement beyond the first volume as it is an elaboration of subjects and themes already treated. The poems evolve from relationships with parents, husband, children (“Rachel,” “Knots,” “Swimming Last Summer”). As the title suggests, Aspects of Eve continues the strategy of viewing contemporary experiences from the perspective of biblical and mythical figures and events. Thus, in “You Are Odysseus,” the husband is addressed as Odysseus while the speaker is, first, one of the Sirens, then “merely Penelope.” In “Sacred to Apollo,” the speaker is, by turns, Daphne, Niobe, and Helen.
A concern with the poet’s craft and vocation, present in the first volume in the poems “Emily Dickinson” and “After Reading Nelly Sachs,” is more fully explored in Aspects of Eve. Pastan’s interest in the significance of the act of naming is evident in “Rachel” and “To Consider a House.” There is also the realization in “Eclipse” and “Night Sounds” that “To catalog is not enough.” It is necessary to face “the inexplicable order of things”; to “reach/ across cold expanses/ . . . for...
(The entire section is 1782 words.)