The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Robert Pinsky’s short lyric poem “A Woman” begins “Thirty years ago” when the speaker in the poem is a child. The scene is set, probably in the New Jersey town of Long Branch on the Atlantic coast, where Pinsky grew up. That oceanside community, with many gulls, pigeons, and chickens, succeeds in “forming a sharp memory” for the child, who walks along beside the “old, fearful” grandmother figure in the poem. Their walk together is a ramble through history, featuring characteristics of both the grandmother’s older world (“Panic of the chickens” awaiting slaughter) and the child’s modern world (“a milkshake”). “A Woman” also contains the accumulated suspicions and terrors of that older world in which the grandmother figure lived her childhood: “Everything that the woman says is a warning,// Or a superstition.”

The child feels the conflict of his clear-eyed observations and her ominous interpretations. He sees the natural world with its “measured rhythm” of wave motion and seasonal change, “booths and arcades/ Still shuttered in March.” For the grandmother this ordinary boardwalk landscape symbolizes “Tokens of risk or rash judgment—drowning,/ Sexual assault, fatal or crippling diseases.” She knows too much and cannot forget; he knows too little and cannot understand. The attempts that the grandmother makes to impart her own fears do not fall on deaf ears, but this child’s ears are filled with wonder,...

(The entire section is 446 words.)