Review by Howard Rosenberg
by Linda Pastan
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10110
2011, 77 pp., $24.95
Though change is the only constant, many resist it, trying, as Jisho Warner comments in the book, 365 Zen: Daily Readings, “to establish a firm footing on what is really shifting ground.”
Few poets have addressed the theme of impermanence and its “companions,” separation and loss, for as long as Linda Pastan. For more than forty years, she’s been able to maintain “firm footing” on that “shifting” subject. Her first book, A Perfect Circle of Sun, published in 1971, makes this revealing statement about poets who write about life’s greatest change in the poem, “Dirge”:
Only poets safe at their desks hear death years away,
and full of the intensity of words,
rush to meet it.
In her latest book, Traveling Light, a collection of 63 poems, many like mini-memoirs, Pastan continues to write about the many faces of change (and death in particular) even though now, at age 80, death isn’t as distant as when she ended “Dirge” with the above three lines.
In the book’s opening poem, “The Burglary,” loss presents itself. Thieves steal the narrator’s mother’s silver, substantially altering the family’s life.
We must eat with our hands now,
grab for food
in this new place of greed,
our table set
only with memories, tarnishing
even as we speak:
In those lines, Pastan couples loss not only with need but also with greed. The family no longer has knives, forks, and spoons, which they cannot even replace with lesser cutlery. What was unexpected was that they fill the void with greed. Also surprising was that “The Burglary” didn’t corner my attention as effectively as had opening poems in other Pastan books I own, such as “A Tourist at Ellis Island,” the first poem in Queen of a Rainy Country.
Unlike “The Burglary,” Traveling Light’s “Tannenbaum” could compete with “A Tourist at Ellis Island”: It’s one of the book’s standouts. The poem is based on the proposition that attachment can make it very difficult to part with something, especially when you’re not supposed to have it. What the poem’s narrator isn’t supposed to have is a Christmas tree (Pastan’s not Christian); to complicate matters, as March nears, the tree—removed to the home’s deck—is now inhabited by “a whole family/ of birds…” who “go busily in and out all day/ like thrifty housewives,” their presence re-giving purpose to it.
The narrator asks:
How can I, who shouldn’t have had
a Christmas tree at all, evict them,
dragging the tree to the far end of the gully
where all the other trees I shouldn’t have had
ended up: stripped by the weather
of their needles; mere skeletons of themselves?
Were the birds not occupying the tree, she could unite it with the previous Christmas trees in the gully where nature renders them into “skeletons.”
Just as the narrator humanizes the birds, she does the same to the trees. By humanizing the trees, Pastan’s showing her respect for an element of nature whose roots have penetrated into her life. It reminds me of Stanley Kunitz’s “The War Against the Trees,” in which he rails against man and machine’s destruction of trees solely for monetary gain.
I share Pastan’s love for trees. There’s a tree near the curb in front of my house that, after a number of years, grew to the height of the street lamp just east of it. Its branches blocked some of the lamp’s light. This past summer, a bucket truck appeared from a tree removal firm—sent by the township. One of the two employees elevated near the tree’s top and began trimming branches. To my dismay, he cut off too much. He may have increased the amount of light reaching the street, but at the cost of the tree’s beauty—and possibly its health. So far, the tree seems okay, but I can’t forget the helplessness I felt that day.
Another poem with a connection to Christmas, “Noel,” one of the book’s shortest poems, reminds me of Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow.” Both poems consist of one sentence divided into couplets; however, in Pastan’s poem, the focus is a “red cardinal.”
Like a single
the red cardinal
on a pine
is our only
Though many of the book’s poems are neither short nor about trees, another short poem, “Late September Song,” was memorable for me. Its first stanza compares the noise of fall’s “first strong/ wind” to that of “a freight train/ rushing/ through the trees,” adding in the second and final stanza that this wind…
sing the song
of its own
I found the the singing leaf personification to be both vivid and unexpected, but not as surprising as the attribution of awareness to the leaves of their impending deaths.
In “Bronze Bells of Autumn,” Pastan connects past and future losses. It opens with:
Although I’ve made a kind of peace
with those I’ve loved who are already dead,
bronze bells of autumn, in their minor key,
toll for the losses still ahead.
The inclusion of “a kind of” in the first line added an unforeseen—and ambiguous—dimension to it. It hints at discord among the narrator and the departed she’s referring to, discord only partially resolved—or possibly that she still has not fully accepted their deaths, either the fact or timing or both? Further, the third line’s metaphor sets the stage for the personification in the stanza’s last line. Metaphors are among my favorite poetic elements. When well-blended with personification, as Pastan does in the above stanza, it effects one of poetry’s mystical qualities.
“Bronze Bells of Autumn” also contains a line that my thoughts return to often. It opens the second stanza, a quatrain loaded with personification:
The weather tells a narrative of change;
the wind prepares a path the geese will take.
This frost is beautiful, and yet it kills.
The harvest moon drowns in the lake.
Until now, I never viewed the weather as a storyteller. Now, when I’m either outside or looking outside, I often think about what story the weather—and its season—might be telling.
Pastan concludes the poem by revealing her love for the dark because of what it erases: “the youth you were, your aging face.” She excels at witnessing and writing about aging’s effects, wading gently into their gloom.
The passage of time is addressed even more directly in “Clock,” six couplets that begin with:
Sometimes it really upsets me—
the way the clock’s hands keep moving,
even when I’m just sitting here
not doing anything at all…
After elaborating further on timepieces, at the poem’s end the narrator states that their “only purpose seems to be/ to hurry me out of this world.”
I can see her watching a clock, its movement offsetting her stillness. She wants the clock, i.e., time, to stop, its forward motion her enemy, one she has no defense against other than through her poetry.
Other poems in the book include ones about her children (“Time Travel”), edible flowers (“Lettuce Heart with Flower Petals”), and visiting a previous home (“Return to Maple 9”), several that are either about or allude to Adam and Eve—a recurring subject in her writings (among them, “Eve on Her Deathbed,” “Years After the Garden,” “In Eve’s Life”), plus ones that refer to the weather and/or seasons (such as “The Moment” and “After a Month of Rain”).
The title poem ends the book. Its message is that our lives are never ours as much as we’d like them to be. It’s as if “our lives,” Pastan writes, “have minds of their own.” I know mine does.
The poems in Traveling Light are the literary equivalent of a Venus Flytrap. When you read one, it’s like landing on a Flytraps’ leaves. You’re trapped. But fortunately, you don’t feel trapped. In fact, you don’t want to leave.
Howard Rosenberg has had poems published in Christian Science Monitor, Touch: The Journal of Healing, Verse Wisconsin, and Boston Literary Magazine, and his poetry book reviews have appeared in Rattle. He also has written articles for magazines and newspapers, including the Philadelphia Daily News. He writes and teaches in New Jersey.