Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

One can scarcely be surprised that the larger, general theme of “A Woman” is childhood. So many of Pinsky’s poems in History of My Heart, by their expressed intent, are about the early sources of his feelings and being. At first glance, the theme of “A Woman” appears to be conventional, with its focus on the dawning awareness of the child that he is a separate person and has a history separate from the old woman. The poem may be autobiographical and narrate a simple memory drawn from Pinsky’s childhood. Yet there is a mystery about what compels humans through life, which is equally important to the thematic development of “A Woman.” The transcendence of action as a wonderful irony in the natural world occurs again and again in Pinsky’s poem. The child on his walk becomes, in the most graceful way, the subject of a poem. “Stopping at the market/ to order a chicken” provides a series of tactile and sensory experiences (or feelings) that have a far greater impact on maturity and understanding than the activity itself.

This poem also demonstrates the very vicissitudes and difficulties of human life that the child will eventually distinguish and comprehend: the frustrations of youth, the fearfulness of age, the enjoyment of play, the inability to engage with the natural and the impossibility of ignoring it. Pinsky’s predisposition to organize poetic themes by utilizing features of past and present—so that explanations from the past illuminate or reveal the meanings in the present—demonstrates a capacity to recognize, to understand, and to process those objects and feelings of the ordinary world into a celebration of the truths they reveal. His insight is timeless, since feelings can and do outstrip events as great motivators. Feelings are dynamic, while actions tend to remain static and fixed in the place (whether real or ideal) where they occurred.

When The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996 appeared in 1996—with reprinted poems of History of My Heart—a review by Katha Pollitt lauded Pinsky’s ability to be “autobiographical without being confessional.” Pinsky revives the ancient art of “storytelling” and of that humor without which the stories would be impossibly bland. Pollitt claims that “A Woman” is a muse for Pinsky. If this is accurate, then the poet draws as easily from the appalling as from the thrilling features of human experience. The “strangers” that the grandmother sees are terrifying for her, but for Pinsky the “stranger” is himself in masquerade as “Trundled by, the strangers invite him up” to share their delight.

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