February: Linda Pastan

On January 30, 2023, Linda Pastan died. After noticing that I’ve gathered several of her poems over the years, I decided to spend most of February with her words. Entries with Pastan poems are tagged, Linda Pastan.

Poems Gathered*

  1. Vertical/ Linda Pastan
  2. excerpt from Flight/ Linda Pastan
  3. Autumn/ Linda Pastan
  4. Blizzard/ Linda Pastan
  5. I Am Learning To Abandon the World/ Linda Pastan
  6. Erosion/ Linda Pastan
  7. Imaginary Conversation/ Linda Pastan
  8. At My Desk/ Linda Pastan
  9. After the Snow/ Linda Pastan (from Insomnia)
  10. The Birds/ Linda Pastan
  11. Memory of a Bird/ Linda Pastan
  12. Practicing/ Linda Pastan
  13. The Clouds/ Linda Pastan
  14. Almost An Elegy: For Tony Hoaglund/ Linda Pastan
  15. Squint/ Linda Pastan
  16. For Miriam, Who Hears Voices/ Linda Pastan
  17. November Rain/ Linda Pastan
  18. Elegy/ Linda Pastan (1986)
  19. In the Orchard/ Linda Pastan
  20. Emily Dickinson/ Linda Pastan
  21. Wind Chill/ Linda Pastan
  22. Ethics/ Linda Pastan
  23. The Death of the Self/ Linda Pastan
  24. At the Window/ Linda Pastan
  25. Why Are Your Poems so Dark?/ Linda Pastan

*the first seven poems were previously posted on this site. 8-25 were gathered during the month of February 2023.

I began by memorizing Pastan’s “Vertical,” the first poem of hers I ever read and one of my favorites. Then I read through her last collection, Almost an Elegy, and picked poems that moved or startled or delighted me. I also searcher for her poems on the internet. I began noticing some common themes: trees, windows, aging, and death. Everywhere the shadow of death, often acting as the conclusion to the poem. Impending death, the inevitability of death, never being saved from death.

It’s strange to read these poems about her impending death right after she died. I was particularly struck by the fact that she was writing about dying/preparing to die/wondering when she’ll die for 30 years. My immediate reaction to this 30 years fact, which I’m conflicted about, was: you had 30 years left to live, too much time spent writing about when you would die! Then: I don’t want to frame my writing about aging only or mostly in terms of death! At least not when I’m only 48.

I began this project with an affection for Pastan’s words and her ability to condense meaning into her narrow, sparse poems. As I read more, I wasn’t so sure about her relentless focus on how “we are slowly undermined” (“Erosion”) and how we must learn to abandon the world before it abandons us. I’m still not sure what I think about her constant emphasis on death, but my affection has returned and deepened into love for her words, especially those about trees and birds.

A Forest of Lindas

As part of this month, I collected all of her lines together in a document I called, “A Forest of Lindas,” inspired by some lines from her poem, “The Death of the Self,” which I posted on feb 20, 2023:

Deep in the heart
of buried acorns,
nothing lost.

Nothing lost. I like imaging my past selves — not past lives, but the many selves I’ve been throughout my life — as not lost. Buried acorns to become, over time and slow, steady growth, a new forest of trees. Now I’m imagining a forest of Saras. I’d like to walk through that forest! This makes me think of something I’ve been noticing about Pastan — she loves trees. She wants to be a tree, she links trees with the act of writing poetry, she finds hope against the inevitability of death in trees. 

After turning her words into a forest, I played around with picking out my favorite lines and turning them into new poems. Here are 3 centos made from the Pastan poems I gathered in February:

Let the eye enlarge, a cento/ Sara Puotinen

Let the eye enlarge
with all it beholds —
the tree outside the window
the blank page
a beak, a wing, a sense of feathers
the clouds
a poem.
See whatever you want
to see.
What will I see?
the same path
through the same woods
again and again.

Refusing Translation, a cento/ Sara Puotinen

moving slowly, slowly
stuttering at the glass 
shadow stubbornness
only memory auditioning 
for the darkness

I will come back as a tree, a cento/ Sara Puotinen

How many times 
I have sat 
this way
with the tree 
outside my window.
I’m inside
they are not.

From my window
I watch 
all day.
How separate 
we are.
What difficulty 
watching wanting 
to be
the tree outside
my window. 

Soon I will be 
made new and
like the tree 
outside my window
not ready to lie down
I will stand

A few things to remember

bats from “November Rain”

From above we must look
like a family of bats—
ribbed wings spread

against the rain,
swooping towards any
makeshift shelter.

Love the image of the bats. Over the years, I’ve found several wonderful bat poems. In theory, bats are beautiful, fun-to-imagine creatures who eat mosquitoes and see with sound in ways I’d like to learn. But my one close encounter with bats, when they were flying through my house one year and established a colony in the attic, freaked me out. I like thinking I see or hear them at twilight, flying high above. I don’t like seeing the evidence of them in my closet.

on revision

You open “The Poets” with the line “They are farmers, really.”

That was partly tongue in cheek, partly serious. For me, there are two distinct phases in the writing of a poem—first the inspiration phase, when language and metaphor come mysteriously into my head, then the planting, sowing, farming phase, otherwise known as revision. The first is a kind of gift, as in “gifted”—it can’t be taught. The second is a matter of learning and practicing one’s craft. But it’s also true that I couldn’t resist having poems planted in manure-filled rows and having poets eyeing each other over bushel baskets in the marketplace.

The last two lines of my poem “Vermilion” are “As if revision were / the purest form of love.” And I believe that for a poet it is. Many of my poems go through at least a hundred revisions—I can spend a whole morning putting in a comma and then taking it out and putting it back in. And I think that perhaps I am at my happiest sitting at my desk polishing a poem, trying to make every word the perfect word.

The Looming Dark: An Interview with Linda Pastan

being “saved” by poetry

from “Almost an Elegy“/Linda Pastan
I need time to read all the poems
you left behind, which pierce

the darkness here at my window
but did nothing to save you.

from “Don’t Tell Anyone “/Tony Hoaglund

the truest, most intimate
pleasure you can sometimes find
is the wet kiss

of your own pain.
There goes Kath, at one pm, to swim her twenty-two laps
back and forth in the community pool;

—what discipline she has!
Twenty-two laps like twenty-two pages,
that will never be read by anyone.

Reading these poems again, I’m struck by their last lines, both about Hoaglund’s poems: 1. the ones Pastan read that could pierce the darkness but not save Hoaglund and 2. the unread ones that aren’t for anyone else, but offer some sort of private pleasure in the face of suffering. 

Poetry is not meant to save us from dying, but that doesn’t mean it can’t save our lives.

Birds in “The Birds” and “Memory of a bird” and their movements

Because of my interest in peripheral vision and what it means to see movement (as opposed to sharp, fixed details), I’m always trying to find poems that offer details and descriptions of movement. I love how much Pastan focuses on how the birds move — they swoop and gather, cast wing shadows, rustle like leaves. She doesn’t offer any descriptions of their color, size, or sound. She doesn’t even name them. I don’t miss those details. The description of their movement is enough. 

I love all of this poem, but today, especially this:

They fly over their doubles,
the mute weathervanes,
teaching all of us
with their tailfeathers
the true north.

Their doubles, the mute weathervanes? Tailfeathers as teachers? So good!