Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1782
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 speech”; to reduce the world to words. Even mute or inarticulate things speak a language:
a train drags its long syllableover a hill,or the baby,..........................sends its vowelscallingfor their lostconsonants.
There is a realization in “Soundings,” too, that the poet’s vocation has its perils: “I drown/ in the loosed wave of language.”
In this second volume, there occurs, for the first time in Pastan’s work, an expressed sense of never having lived, a feeling that one is forever waiting for life to happen, a sense and feeling thoroughly developed in her fourth collection, Waiting for My Life. In Aspects of Eve, Pastan achieves effects that are peculiarly her own in poems that describe aspects of everyday life as parts of an overarching story, caught in a frozen moment, seen as if through glass, so that everything is silent. Although the story is almost ended, and everything is on the verge of disappearing, the story has never really begun. Poems achieving these effects—“Short Story,” “A Real Story,” “Death’s Blue-Eyed Girl,” “Folk Tale”—have the quality of a fairy tale in which everything is perfectly ordinary yet magical and enchanted.
“Only my weaving [that is, my writing] is real,” Pastan says in “You Are Odysseus.” Devotion to the poet’s craft and calling is implicit in the authority of her imagery. The old couple in “Folk Tale” leave a plow “like an abandoned aircraft, nose down/ in rusting fields of corn.” In “Algebra,” leaves fly past, “the color of pencil shavings.” “The sun, like a swallowed sword/ comes blazing back” in the poem “Eclipse.” A growing concern with the poet’s vocation and with the penalty that art exacts from life (“One way or another you burn for it”) is explicit in the poem “Voices” in Pastan’s third collection, The Five Stages of Grief (1978):
Joan heard voices,and she burned for it.Driving through the darkI write poems.Last night I drove througha stop sign, ponderingline breaks.
In “Voices,” she anticipates a time when the poetic spell is past; she hoards poems as a dog hoards bones:
Sometimes I burymy poems in the garden,saving themfor the cold days ahead.
The sense of never having lived, the sense that nothing is real except the writing, is rendered in “Final”:
I studiedso longfor my life,and all the timemorning had been parkedoutside my window,one wheel of the sunresting against the curb.
Life is not a joyride; it is a book of empty pages to be written on:
Only one page remainsempty, though itis the hardest of all.Its blanks are as wideas hospital corridors.
The identification of life and poetic art becomes nearly perfect in “Consolations.” Pastan puts her faith in language: “Listen:/ language does the best it can. I speak.” Language yields her most intense experiences, while experiences of the ordinary world—the whining dog, trees shedding their leaves, the sound of bees—are all “vague/ as voices barely heard/ from the next room.” Even the touch of a companion is foreign: “You touch me—/ another language.”
In Waiting for My Life, writing becomes increasingly the means to a more fully realized life. What the speaker in “The One-Way Mirror Back” remembers of her past life she feels “hardly happened,” and “what they say happened/ I hardly remember.” Therefore, as in “Waiting for My Life,” she must go “prospecting” for her life. Writing is her way of deciphering secrets she keeps from herself, of understanding what she did not know she knew, or of sending a letter “the way the tree sends messages/ in leaves,” as in “Eyes Only.” The identification of life and writing in this poem is total; writing is the speaker’s life blood:
Therefore I writein this blueink, colorof secret veinsand arteries.
In the twenty new poems of PM/AM, the preoccupation with language, the need to interpret life through language, and the sense of the poet’s vocation as caster of spells are intensified. The poems still evoke “ordinary weather” of everyday experience (“AM”). Life is a story, but it is “pure fact.” Life is language, language is life: the father in “PM” has “used up/ his small store of words.” The world of “The Printer” consists of “as many letters/ as leaves, as birds, as flecks of ash.” It is necessary to cast a spell by naming, as Homer does with his list of warriors and ships—necessary even though the spell will end. In “Instructions to the Reader,” Pastan casts herself in the role of Scheherazade, with only a handful of nights remaining, after which time
the typesetterwill distributethe type.The letters will be dividedfrom all meaning.
Darkness will come, and “a time before language” (“The Printer”).
These new poems represent no advance (in the sense of new themes and subjects); the range of rendered experience is not extended. The message of “We Come to Silence,” the last poem in the section of new work, is the same as that of “At My Window,” the last poem in Pastan’s previous volume, Waiting for My Life. Looking back over Pastan’s career to date, however, as it is reflected in these new and selected poems, one is impressed by her increasing awareness of the poet’s role and vocation, its rewards, rigors, and costs—and by her increasingly serious commitment to that vocation. Like the printer to whom she dedicates a poem, Pastan is “journeyman to the letter, apprentice to the word.” Her life is her art. “The smell of ink” (her art) and “the smell of bread” (life) signify the same thing.
Pastan continues to illuminate the ordinary and everyday, rendering the world magical and fabulous. Waking, she writes, one watches one’s dreams move “helplessly away like fading/ lantern fish” (“Waking”). In her poem entitled “In the Middle of a Life,” she continues in her characteristic style, a concise, spare alternation of perfectly controlled statement and image, culminating in a simile, her favored figure of speech:
Tonight I understandfor the first timehow a woman might chooseher own deathas easilyas if it were a dark plumshe pickedfrom a basketof bright peaches.
She continues in “A Name” with the occasional aphorism: “Even naked/ we wear our names” that has the intensity and condensation of an image.
PM/AM is both a judicious and a generous selection from Pastan’s work, a collection which allows the reader to “enter the room” of her story. Hers is the story of the growth and development of a serious poetic career. She continues to tell it remarkably well.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 19
New Leader. LXV, December 27, 1982, p. 15.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, February 20, 1983, p. 6.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, September 10, 1982, p. 73.
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