Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1898
In Waiting for My Life, her fourth volume of poems, Linda Pastan demonstrates with uncommon artistry the rich literary possibilities of the commonplace—ordinary situations, everyday experiences. Although much of her life is already gone, as are the children she has reared, the speaker in these poems is still waiting for her life to happen. Pastan renders the different aspects of this experience superbly. She writes about sorting through one’s dreams and speculating on their nature, their feel (“Dreams”); about reading to a child (“McGuffey’s First Eclectic Reader”); about the experience, as an adult, of being taught something by a child (“The Vanishing Point”). There are poems about seeing a child off to school, or to a job (“Helen Bids Farewell to Her Daughter Hermione”); about the fear that a child will come to harm; about resentment felt when departed children do not write or call. She writes about returning to familiar surroundings after an absence (“Returning”); about imagining the rest of one’s life (“Widow’s Walk, Somewhere Inland”). The titles of many poems suggest the everyday experiences and situations that occasioned them: “Letter to a Son at Exam Time,” “By the Mailbox,” “Meditation by the Stove,” “Weather Forecast.”
The titles alone do not suggest what Pastan makes of these ordinary occasions: poems of exceptionally sharp and vivid imagery, concise and telling. “We take from nature/ what we can,” Pastan writes in “By the Mailbox.” What she takes is apparently simple and familiar: tree, leaf, star, fire, bread, moon, snow, water. What she makes of these is profound.
The imagery of these poems is local in a double sense. Drawn for the most part from the speaker’s immediate surroundings, the images also function locally in the poems, lighting up the meaning of a particular verse paragraph or line, as this one found in the title poem: “Sometimes my life coughed and coughed:/ a stalled car about to catch.” That is the beginning and the end of the car image; it functions immediately and locally, and that is enough. In “Letter to a Son at Exam Time,” poems in a college textbook (in contrast to those that “leaf out” from her typewriter) are “so many leaves pressed to death/ in a heavy book.” The leaf image is elaborated no further. In “Meditation by the Stove” the scene is a kitchen where dough is “breathing under its damp cloth/ like a sleeping child.” The extremely effective image is local in that it is derived from the immediate scene and from the speaker’s situation as a mother and a homemaker. Rendered concisely, it is elaborated no further.
Pastan’s method is not to elaborate a single metaphor to the length of a conceit which dominates the entire poem. Instead, elaboration is achieved by economical movement from statement to image, and by allowing a locally functioning image to be quickly superseded by another, as in “Dreams.” Dreams are “the only afterlife we know;/ the place where the children/ we were/ rock in the arms of the children/ we have become.” The remainder of the poem consists of a number of images which explore various aspects of dreams. Dreams are
. . . as many as leaves
in their migrations,
as birds whose deaths we learn of
by the single feather
left behind: a clue,
a particle of sleep
caught in the eye.
They are as irretrievable as sand.
Thus the poem moves, statement alternating with image. The theme generates the image, the image reveals the theme.
The success of this alternation, elaboration, and variation is attributable to the wonderful control of theme and to the aptness of the concrete details in revealing the theme. Thus, in “The Vanishing Point” the notion of perspective is vividly rendered by images succinctly stated and quickly following one another. Perspective is “a penciled dot/ drawn on a picture plane/ where parallel lines/ converge.” The lines converging are like “holding two kite strings/ in one hand.” The penciled dot is then seen as
. . . that point
the eye drifts towards
on any horizon, the place
where all things lost
converge: the hairpins
your father took slowly
from my piled up hair
the night we met;
your face at five or seven;
and someone else—a voice
I almost listened to once—
who never asked again.
These diverse elements are perfectly controlled by the theme.
The beautiful organization of details in individual poems has its parallel in the overall movement of this beautifully arranged collection. The three sections—“Friday’s Child,” “The War Between Desire and Dailiness,” and “The Verdict of Snow”—are thematically and imagistically seamless, as intricately interwoven as a bird’s nest. The poems in their progression create a trajectory, an arc of imagery. The book opens with an “Epilogue”—the speaker of the poems has died—in which the surface of a lake is described as “equivocal/ as the pages of a book/ on which everything remains/ to be written.” A “Prologue” follows, in which “Nothing has happened yet,” but just as in the “Epilogue” things are equivocal. An elk drinks from the lake, “or in the confusion of dusk/ perhaps it is simply/ an old tree/ leaning over the water.”
Between the “Nothing has happened yet” of the “Prologue” and “Nothing is left to happen” of “My Achilles Son” there are wonderful repetitions and variations of theme and image. Placement of the “Epilogue” at the outset—with the speaker already dead—is exactly right in this book of poems about someone who is “Friday’s Child” (loving and giving) and who, like Cassandra, anticipates everything, who knows “that every flower awaited/ its proper place/ on our funeral wreaths.” Such a reversal is a way of expressing, in the book’s structure, the two-sidedness of things. In the poem “In Back Of,” a reverse image achieves this essential ambivalence. The poem moves, in characteristic fashion, from statement to image: “In back of ’I love you’/ stands ’goodbye.’” Words are like mirror images: “When you raise/ your right hand/ in greeting,/ they raise their left/ in farewell.”
A number of the reversals in these poems involve role reversals of parent and child. In “The One-Way Mirror Back,” the father’s mustache “bobbed/ in the distance/ like the old rowboat/ across the lake.” In “Widow’s Walk, Somewhere Inland,” it is the speaker’s grown-up sons who are like boats that “tie up here for a while.” In “The Vanishing Point,” the child becomes parent, and the parent becomes a child learning about perspective.
There is hardly a poem in Waiting for My Life that does not deal in some way with children. From the opening “Epilogue,” in which the speaker has died “no longer a girl,” and which speaks of two children, Katerina and Robert, to the last poem, “Ethics,” which concludes with the realization that children can save neither art nor nature nor an old woman, children are a thematic concern and a source of imagery. In “Elegy,” the speaker searches for a poem “the child I was hides/ in the ear of the woman/ I have become.” An image of childhood vividly describes lovemaking, which lights the body “the way as children we press a flashlight/ into our own flesh/ making each limb seem to smolder” (“When the Moment Is Over”). As an adult, the speaker watches “the trees like gnarled magicians/ produce handkerchiefs/ of leaves/ out of empty branches” and is like a child “at this spectacle/ of leaves.”
In the same way that leaves are produced magically from branches, Pastan’s themes leaf out into many images. The weather imagery of “Friday’s Child” (“regiments of clouds/ were being formed/ that could bombard us soon/ with snow, could bury us”) adumbrates the weather of “Cold Front,” “Weather Forecast,” and “At My Window,”—as well as the martial imagery of the entire second section, “The War Between Desire and Dailiness,” and the anticipation of death in the final section, “The Verdict of Snow.” The concern with aging and dying, concentrated in the third section, is prefigured in “Secrets,” from part one:
The secrets I keep
are the same secrets
the leaves keep
from the old trunk
of the tree
even as they turn
The curving road of “Prologue” anticipates the journey image of “after minor surgery”: “the body/ like a passenger of a long journey/ hears the conductor call out/ the name/ of the first stop.” The curving road of “Prologue” appears in “On the Road to Delphi,” in “Presbyopia” (“Those blurred numerals/ on the page/ are tracks/ to be followed/ the rest of the way/ alone.”) The road is implicit in the “mute pilgrimage” of snow “falling in silence/ toward silence” in “At My Window.”
The many references to silence are, along with the noted reversals, a way of rendering an aspect of the equivocalness or ambiguity of experience. There is the “nearly perfect” silence of “Epilogue” and “Prologue.” In “Secrets,” the trumpet flower ironically sings “only silence.” The whippoorwill’s song is “never tell/ never tell/ never tell.” Silence is the only message sent in “By the Mailbox.” In “blizzard,” an “alphabet/ of silence/ falls out of the/ sky.”
Nature and experience, being equivocal, must be interpreted. Everything, even silence, is a message that must be deciphered. This circumstance accounts—if not logically, then in terms of experience—for the speaker’s sense of being “someone else” (“Excursion”) forever waiting for life to begin; of coming into familiar surroundings after an absence, feeling as if she were a stranger who had parachuted out of the sky (“Returning”). Experience is only half of experience, according to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The other half is perhaps its interpretation.
For Linda Pastan, writing is the other half of experience. Her persistent sense of being a tourist in her own life (“On the Road to Delphi”) engenders a desire for “the fully lived life” (“Meditation by the Stove”), but what she remembers, she feels, “hardly happened,” and “what they say happened/ I hardly remember” (“The One-Way Mirror Back”). Thus she must go “prospecting” for her life (“Waiting for My Life”). Writing is her way of reading the secrets she keeps from herself (“Secrets”); of understanding what she did not know she knew (“Letter to a Son at Exam Time”); of sending a letter “the way the tree sends messages/ in leaves” (“Eyes Only”). Writing is “the coin of metaphor spinning,/ coming up Fact” (“On Hearing the Testimony of Those Revived After Cardiac Arrest”). Entered into for this reason, Pastan’s writing—and this is rare—results in a poetry which makes clear its own necessity.
Writing about life becomes the means to the more fully realized life, as is suggested by: “Therefore I write/ in this blue/ ink, color/ of secret veins/ and arteries” (“Eyes Only”). This is the view of many poets, who have no life in the way nonartists can be said to have a life. With this volume, Linda Pastan provides an instructive illustration of the distinction Lawrence Lipking makes in The Life of the Poet (1981) between the ordinary biography of the poet (which, as far as the poet is concerned, “hardly happened”) and the biography “that gets into poems: the life that has passed through a refining poetic fire.” This is the life poets are always waiting for. Here Linda Pastan has rendered that life exquisitely.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 19
Book World. XI, July 5, 1981, p. 7.
Booklist. LXXVII, April 1, 1981, p. 1074.
Library Journal. CVI, March 15, 1981, p. 664.
Publishers Weekly. CCXIX, February 27, 1981, p. 147.
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