Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

“Returning” is a poem about the aftermath of an ecstatic moment, presumably a sexual climax. The experience is so intense and pleasurable that it must be considered otherworldly rather than a part of the poet’s ordinary life. It also appears, at least at the climactic moment, to be a solitary experience. It is only as the woman floats down to the harsher realities of the earth that her husband starts to come into view. However, this is also a poem about a meaningful relationship: The woman lands in the garden that she and her husband cultivate, plant, tend, and harvest together. It is a product of partnership with a “brief but brilliant” interlude of solo flight. The poem is not particularly erotic, but it is highly attentive to the senses of the subject as she passes between states of being. The association of sex with flight has been used in poetry before, but Pastan’s particular use of a falling parachutist to illustrate the subject’s return to her ordinary life is striking. Falling through the air in a parachute must necessarily be an exhilarating but brief experience. The poem is also unusual in being situated around the transitional moments rather than being firmly rooted in one state or the other.

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Although the ecstatic experiences are achieved by different means, two other well-known poems provide a comparison to Pastan’s passage between the worlds of the ecstatic and the ordinary. In John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” the poet, on the “viewless wings of Poesy,” flies away to the land of the sweetly sad singing of the nightingale, a fairyland where the Queen-Moon sits on a throne surrounded by “all her starry Fays.” He indulges in the “soft incense” of seasonal plants and fruits, but all too quickly he is recalled to his ordinary reality, not sure if his experience was a vision or a “waking dream.” Likewise, in Robert Frost’s “Birches,” the poet escapes the “pathless wood” of his normal life for a brief time by contemplating and then climbing a birch tree. After an ice storm, the birches, sun shining through their “crystal shells” of ice, provide an extraordinary vision of beauty, raising the poet out of his ordinary self. The birches also provide an escape from this life by serving as a ladder “Toward heaven.” For Keats and Frost, like Pastan, the ecstatic experience is brief but brilliant. They live in the ordinary reality of this life, where branches are “sharp” (Pastan), “one eye is weeping” (Frost), and “men sit and hear each other groan” (Keats). Their brief escapes give them a chance to gain perspective on this life and give them a toehold in another world even as they return to this world.

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