Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Poet Linda Pastan: Not "Quite Ordinary"

Reflection on poems by Linda Pastan in her collection Queen of a Rainy Country (New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2006).   Read her bio and some popular poems at

Attention paid last week to the news of Maya Angelou's death overwhelmed Garrison Keillor's nod to poet Linda Pastan on her 82nd birthday.  Angelou was a great public performer whose magisterial voice I've recognized since President Clinton's first inauguration.  But let's celebrate work of Angelou's contemporary Linda Pastan, whose understated poetry brings insight to ordinary things.

Her insights into aging affected me deeply, as I've described in earlier blog posts (read here).    In Pastan's 2006 collection, the latest I've read, she writes of feeling like Queen of a Rainy Country, an image borrowed from Baudelaire to express what it's like to have a young mind in command of a realm that's slipping away. Not just her body, but the world is dissolving, as she reads headlines that "leak blood all over the breakfast table." While she remembers that "it has always been like this," she feels "longing for childhood whose failures / were merely personal" ("A Rainy Country" 77).

On a related theme, several poems in this collection address her husband, their years past, the time ahead.   "Though we know how it will end," she writes, "we go about our ordinary days," and perhaps" the "few years left...".
will somehow endure,
the way a portrait of lovers endures
radiant and true on the wall
of some obscure Dutch museum
("50 Years" 30)
She plays with what might have been, as in a poem about the siblings she, an only child, used to imagine for herself, now only two more "ghosts" among all the others who used to be her family ("To My Imaginary Siblings" 5).  She writes about "The Life I Didn't Lead" (12) and the parallel universe in which she and her husband never married (19).  In "I Married You," she concludes simply, "How wrong we both were / about each other, / and how happy we have been" (28).

She likens her own work to that of her photographer.  Seeing her own face "rise like Venus" from a bath of photographic chemicals, she reflects that he has made a beautiful face from "the plain one" that the poet sees in her mirror.  Like the photographer, Pastan wants to make language "quiver" in poems using words that "seem quite ordinary" ("The Photographer" 8). She delights in the "strange, compelling combinations" that letters can make ("Alphabet Song" 33).  Though she rarely rhymes, she juxtaposes similar words for effect [italics mine]: a  milestone anniversary may be a millstone (22); the setting sun makes its plunge pulling its multi-colored plumage after it (in an erotically-charged poem "Late Afternoon, St. John" 29); and parental duty languishes so she can have her "daily fix of language", and "the bed remains disheveled" while "the dishes loll in the sink / like adolescents"  ("For the Sake of the Poem" 38).  Those lolling adolescents of the simile prefigure the neglected children mentioned later.

Pastan plays with everyday objects as if they were metaphors.  She illustrates the process in a poem that takes off from Manet's claim that he could "say" what he wanted with just fruit, a flower, or clouds.  Pastan tries it: what does a bowl of apples "say" to one's husband?  Are these symbols of love, or lust, or the Fall?  Maybe fruit is all she has prepared for dessert ("All I Want to Say" 27).  She makes a near-allegory from a dinner out, the waiter's clearing of the table being like clearing away "the debris of years" ("Don't Think of This" 19).  "November Rain" is a set of Haiku-like meditations on black umbrellas (49), and autumn leaves bring to mind "leaves" of paper, "each a poem / or story,/ an unread letter" ("Death of the Self" 48).

Pastan returns to favorite images for new uses.  The pages of this book abound, as her others do, with dogs, the garden or The Garden (where "all the dogs / of my long life jump up / to lick my face" 13), the immigrant generation of her family (much of section I), and the passing of seasons (all of section IV).  Poems in this collection share images of cut grass as an image of lost time ("A Boy" 7) and the image of rivers branching into ever-tinier tributaries, as metaphors for time or analogies for her own arteries ("Anomaly" 9).

As I read, I gave one poem two check marks for saying things I've thought without being conscious:  "Things I Didn't Know I loved:  After Nazim Hikmet" (14-15).  There are sky, clouds, grass, rain and "snow when I am inside looking out," and trees, but above all "the sound of trains,/ those drawn-out whistles of longing in the night" that "give loneliness and departure a voice."  In a line that draws together all the themes of this collection, she writes that she may "embrace the music of departure" because it will one day "be all there is left to love." 

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