Traveling Light : Poems

  • Linda Pastan
  • W. W. Norton
  • 77 pp.

In this latest poetry collection from a lyrical master, “tension trembles below a tranquil surface.”

Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri

To read a new book by Linda Pastan is to know again the comfort of sharp observation and lyrical intelligence. Pastan, the poet laureate of Maryland from 1991 through 1995, has written 12 books of poetry and been twice honored as a finalist for the National Book Award. In 2003 she received the Ruth Lilly Prize, which recognizes a living American poet whose lifetime work merits, in the words of the Poetry Foundation, “extraordinary recognition.”

We don’t talk so much about “women poets” these days, or black poets, or Native American poets. Poets are standing shoulder to shoulder. But it’s honest to say that women who are poets share certain traditions and sensibilities.

A former U.S. poet laureate, Mona Van Duyn, spoke of women who “lead quiet lives” so they could be all the more extraordinary on the page. Each of Pastan’s books concerns family and domesticity. Domesticity is a term that emerged in the 1950s when women’s voices were finally being heard. House and home entered our literature. A female poet’s imagery was noticeably different from imagery we were used to. Elizabeth Bishop emphasized the home in her poems, probably because of her longing for it. Now, home is the property of men and women writers alike, but in the early and mid 20th century, it was mostly the woman poet talking about “hearth.” Maxine Kumin wrote of the long marriage, and the children, as an entry to nature and world affairs. These female poets secured the firm ground of pentameter, rhythm and form.  We always knew someone was in control of the poem. This steady excellence of craft distinguished a host of women in the ’60s and ’70s, bringing them to prominence. Linda Pastan comes from this.

There’s a trait that makes Linda Pastan’s work like that of another poet who preceded her, Josephine Jacobsen. It is the tremble of dread below an otherwise tranquil surface. Here is the beginning of a Pastan poem titled “The Ordinary”:

It may happen on a day

of ordinary weather―

the usual assembled flowers,

or fallen leaves

disheveling the grass.

You may be feeding the dog,

or sipping a cup of tea,

and then: the telegram;

or the phone call;

or the sharp pain traveling

the length of your

left arm, or his…

Also in her title poem “Traveling Light,” the poet concludes with something worrisome beneath the surface:

… the weatherfront

they warn is on its way

with its switchblades

of wind and ice,

our lives have minds

of their own

She sets a scene and suddenly, at the end, a predator thought swoops down to its prey. Pastan’s poem “Somewhere in the World,” made of unrhymed tercets, comes to this ending: But somewhere something is happening

against which there is no planning, only

those two aging conspirators. Hope and Luck.

Linda Pastan is known for her mythological themes and archetypal characters. This new book has five fresh poems, referencing Eve, even as we wonder if Eve can be storied one more time. Yet an animation  of thought changes existing ideas. In “Pears”:

Some say

it was a pear

Eve ate.

Why else the shape

of the womb,

or of the cello

whose single song is grief

for the parent tree? Why else the fruit itself

tawny and sweet

which your lover

over breakfast

lets go your pear-

shaped breast

to reach for?

There is not much shock value in Pastan’s work, but there is surprise. Her poetry rinses language. The right word telegraphs an exact meaning every time. Because modern American poetry is sometimes cluttered with so much resentment, greed, betrayal and sorrow, it is encouraging to read these poems of wryness and insight, in “Time Travel,” for example:

Elizabeth would choose

The Middle Ages

when cathedrals grew

like stalagmites

out of hard ground,

and rainbows coalesced

to stained glass.

David would choose the 17th century.

He’d whisper in the ear

of Galileo about dark matter

and space explorers; he’d tell him

never mind The Church,

you’re canonized in all the textbooks.

Rachel would pick the 19th century,

a country house like the ones in Jane Austen;

or a dacha perhaps, outside of Moscow,

despite the fierce cold,

not to mention the increasingly

angry peasants.

But I would simply choose May 1932

the moment I was born on the Grand Concourse.

I’d insinuate myself into the head

of that baby girl, living her life

all over again

but doing it right this time.

Grace Cavalieri is a poet and a playwright. She’s the producer of “The Poet and the Poem” for public radio. Her series, now from the Library of Congress, celebrates its 34th consecutive year on the air.

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