Laura Orem on Linda Pastan

Traveling Light by Linda Pastan.  W.W. Norton, 2011.

In her new collection, Traveling Light, poet Linda Pastan investigates a life journey as it nears its end. The poems here are quietly reflective. There is curiosity about when this journey will be completed, but little fear. The speaker is as calm as a hidden pool discovered in a forest, and by lingering a moment, the reader sees the underwater landscape at the bottom, the collected jetsam of the speaker's memory.


The natural world is significant to these poems, but it is not nature as adventure or adversary. Rather, the speaker observes the flight of birds, the changing of the seasons, and the life cycle of the world right outside her window:


The Maypole


for Wallace Stevens


One must have a mind of spring        

to regard the cherry tree burdened

with blossoms;


and have been warm for days

to behold the boughs of the redbud

prickly with color in the glint


of the April sun; and not to think

of any cruelty in the difficult birthing

of so many leaves, to feel only pure


elation at the sound of the undulant breeze

which is the sound of every garden

with a breeze blowing among its flowers,


the sound the listener hears, watching the buds

which were not quite here a week ago

pushing up from oblivion now.


Like Emily Dickinson, the speaker extrapolates this framed and bounded view into a larger meaning, but unlike Dickinson's subterranean avidity, this poem, and many of the others, are accepting in their observation. They chime like clear, exquisite temple bells: precise, calm, inviting reflection.


In poems like "Counting Backward," Pastan's speaker is contemplative as she questions: "How did I get so old, / I wonder . . . .  It's the physics / of acceleration I mind, the way time speeds up / as if it hasn't guessed // the destination—."  There is no fear, no raging, just a quiet curiosity as she considers the end of her own life: "I see my mother / and father / bearing a cake, / waiting for me / at the starting line." This is also evident in the lovely poem, "Anatomy," which contextualizes the speaker's physical aging as part of the natural order of things while acknowledging the ride isn't always easy:


In the tenement          

of the body

generations have left

their mark.


On the stairwell

of bones and the

walls of flesh

illegible words


are scrawled

in invisible ink.

Windows look down

on concrete gardens


where live buds

force themselves

from sticks

of trees.


The genes are doing

their scheduled work.

Clutch the banister,

hold on tight.


Pastan's poems are always elegant and well-crafted, never more so than when she writes in form. In particular, the pantoum "Years After the Garden" is a graceful exploration of loss and the passage of time that flows seamlessly and intertwines as tightly as a silken rope. It begins:


Years after the garden closed on Adam

a thousand thousand gardens take its place

(hold my hand, I hear the water rising)

Roses, lemons, lilac, hemlock, grape


A thousand thousand gardens take its place.

Is each an Eden waiting to be lost?

Roses, lemons, lilac, hemlock, grape.

What was God thinking when he made the apple?


Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Paradise are the subject of several poems. The old story is treated with tenderness and elegant concision as Pastan imagines Eve in conversation with the serpent; missing her children; and in process of dying.


Traveling Light as a collection showcases the skill of a poet who knows her craft. It also presents a topic—aging—that has not often been explored in poetry without sentimentality.  Pastan is too disciplined to slip into pathos.  Indeed, her crystalline lyrics, discerning eye, and tranquil voice invite readers into a poetic vista that they will be glad to have entered.



Laura Orem is a poet, essayist, and artist living in Red Lion PA. She holds an MFA from Bennington and teaches writing at Goucher College. She is a featured writer for The Best American Poetry Blog and is a senior editor for Toad Hall Press. Her poetry can be found in many journals, including recently in The Dos Passos Review and OCHO.



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