“Returning” is a free-verse poem of twenty-one lines divided into three seven-line stanzas. The title raises some key questions about the poem: Where is the main character of the poem (a woman identified only as “she”)? Where is she returning from? Where is she going? On one level the answers are easy. Linda Pastan employs an extended analogy, based on a parachutist returning from the sky to “the coarser atmosphere of earth,” to present this returning. It is more difficult to decide to what other process the parachutist’s descent provides an analogy. The first stanza sets up this analogy and brings the parachutist from the clouds down to treetop level. The second stanza awakens the subject’s eyes and nose to the sensations of this coarser life of earth. She smells the pines, and her husband starts to “swim” into view. In the final stanza, the parachutist lands in her garden and pushes the chute aside, signaling the end of the flight. In the last three lines, the poet likens the discarding of the parachute to the way “she pushed the white sheet/ from her breasts/ just yesterday.”
The first line (“She re-enters her life”) provides a clue to the nature of the analogy. The subject has been away from her normal life, perhaps in an altered psychological or physical state. In fact, the place she has been seems to suggest a Platonic ideal: Apparently, it has a very fine atmosphere as contrasted with “the coarser atmosphere of earth.” In this other reality, she experienced “the sensual shapes of clouds” whereas in her “life” she finds only “cloud-shaped trees.” Furthermore, the shapes of the trees are deceptively inviting, for the soft leaves are “transitory” and the branches are “sharp.” Indeed, the place where the poet has been is clearly more pleasant than her normal world. Stanza 2 presents a dawning earth consciousness as the smell of pines pierce “the surface of memory” and a vision of the speaker’s husband “starts to swim/ back into sight.” Stanza 3 identifies both the duration and quality of the poet’s flight: “brief but brilliant.” All of this suggests that the speaker is “returning” from a sexual climax.