Linda Pastan

Though I’d planned to include only “dead poets” in my Lectio pages, this month I include a poet very much alive, Linda Pastan (b. 1932), a poet I’ve long admired for her depth of feeling and simplicity of style. Though she will offer up a highly skillful sonnet or sestina now and then, primarily Linda is a free verse poet; for her, free verse is not “playing tennis without a net,” as some would have it, but rather “inventing a new form for each poem.” Her themes are the eternal ones—birth, death, living with the knowledge of death, the body, the family, love and loss; many are informed by Judaic tradition.

Linda Pastan has won her share of awards over her long writing career, and has served as poet laureate of Maryland, though, like moi, she grew up in the Bronx.


In Massaccio’s Expulsion
From the Garden

how benign the angel seems,
like a good civil servant
he is merely enforcing
the rules. I remember
these faces from Fine Arts 13.
I was young enough then
to think that the loss of innocence
was just about Sex.
Now I see Eve covering
her breasts with her hands
and I know it is not to hide them
but only to keep them
from all she must know
is to follow from Abel
on one, Cain on the other.

The Five Stages of Grief

The night I lost you
someone pointed me towards
the Five Stages of Grief.
Go that way, they said,
it’s easy, like learning to climb
stairs after the amputation.
And so I climbed.
Denial was first.
I sat down at breakfast
carefully setting the table
for two. I passed you the toast—
you sat there. I passed
you the paper—you hid
behind it.
Anger seemed more familiar.
I burned the toast, snatched
the paper and read the headlines myself.
But they mentioned your departure,
and so I moved on to
Bargaining. What could I exchange
for you? The silence
after storms? My typing fingers?
Before I could decide, Depression
came puffing up, a poor relation
its suitcase tied together
with string. In the suitcase
were bandages for the eyes
and bottles of sleep. I slid
all the way down the stairs
feeling nothing.
And all the time Hope
flashed on and off
in defective neon.
Hope was a signpost pointing
straight in the air.
Hope was my uncle’s middle name,
he died of it.
After a year I am still climbing,
though my feet slip
on your stone face.
The treeline
has long since disappeared;
green is a color
I have forgotten.
But now i see what I am climbing
towards: Acceptance
written in capital letters,
a special headline:
its name is in lights.
I struggle on,
waving and shouting.
Below, my whole life spreads it surf,
all the landscapes I’ve ever known
or dreamed of. Below
a fish jumps: the pulse
in your neck.
Acceptance. I finally
reach it.
But something is wrong.
Grief is a circular staircase.
I have lost you.


In ethics class so many years ago
our teacher asked this question every fall:
if there were a fire in a museum
which would you save, a Rembrandt painting
or an old woman who hadn’t many
years left anyhow? Restless on hard chairs
caring little for pictures or old age
we’d opt one year for life, the next for art
and always half-heartedly. Sometimes
the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face
leaving her usual kitchen to wander
some drafty, half-imagined museum.
One year, feeling clever, I replied
why not let the woman decide herself?
Linda, the teacher would report, eschews
the burdens of responsibility.
This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself. The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,
darker even than winter—the browns of earth,
though earth’s most radiant elements burn
through the canvas. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond saving by children.

Root Canal

under the anesthetic
tiny gondoliers
sing to me

and I am
borne away

helpless as
as they pole

through the shadowed
of the mouth


Shaken by dreams, sometimes
I don’t know which bed I’m in
in the long procession of beds that move
like Saints’ Day floats before my eyes.

Look! There’s the cradle;
there’s the child’s narrow bed—
and beyond a doorway arched
like a church, the father and mother
breathing out their small allotment of breath.

And there’s the oak four poster
where I burned all night, thinking
of the boy who had begged for hours
but wasn’t allowed
between the austere sheets.

All beds are the same bed. Made fresh
each morning, they rise on their springs like loaves of bread
only to be torn apart again each night:
our futon; that Austrian featherbed; the pullman berth
that rocked us together like unborn twins.

When you first bedded me in a tangle
of silks and soft skin, I learned in my bones
of bedrock and flower beds. Years later
I know why clouds outside an airplane window comfort us
and why our youngest son embraced his mattress once
not as if it were a lover but simply itself
and said: I love you bed.
I know why they put pillows in coffins.
I know why sleep is the secret life
we hide all day, and I know where we hide it.

The Happiest Day

It was early May, I think
a moment of lilac or dogwood
when so many promises are made
it hardly matters if a few are broken.
My mother and father still hovered
in the background, part of the scenery
like the houses I had grown up in,
and if they would be torn down later
that was something I knew
but didn’t believe. Our children were asleep
or playing, the youngest as new
as the new smell of the lilacs,
and how could I have guessed
their roots were shallow
and would be easily transplanted.
I didn’t even guess that I was happy.
The small irritations that are like salt
on melon were what I dwelt on,
though in truth they simply
made the fruit taste sweeter.
So we sat on the porch
in the cool morning, sipping
hot coffee. Behind the news of the day—
strikes and small wars, a fire somewhere—
I could see the top of your dark head
and thought not of public conflagrations
but of how it would feel on my bare shoulder.
If someone could stop the camera then …
if someone could only stop the camera
and ask me: are you happy?
perhaps I would have noticed
how the morning shone in the reflected
color of lilac. Yes, I might have said
and offered a steaming cup of coffee.

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