Today's poetry for today's world

Linda Pastan   


Linda Pastan grew up in New York City, graduated from Radcliffe College, and received an MA from Brandeis University.  She has published 12 volumes of poetry, most recently Queen of a Rainy Country.  Two of these books have been finalists for the National Book Award.  Her new book, Traveling Light, is due from Norton in January.  Pastan's poems have appeared in many journals, including The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, The Nation, and The Georgia Review.  She has been Poet Laureate of Maryland, and in 2003 she won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement.  She lives with her husband in Potomac Maryland.  They have 3 children and 7 grandchildren.





Photo by Oliver Pastan

* * *  Special Feature * * *

                                        The following three poems appear in Traveling Light,

                                        Linda Pastan's newest book published January, 2011.











                                                    I remember when my body

                                                    was a friend,


                                                    when sleep like a good dog

                                                    came when summoned.


                                                    The door to the future

                                                    had not started to shut,


                                                    and lying on my back

                                                    between cold sheets


                                                    did not feel

                                                    like a rehearsal.


                                                    Now what light is left

                                                    comes up-- a stain in the east,


                                                    and sleep, reluctant

                                                    as a busy doctor,


                                                    gives me a little

                                                    of its time.



                                                    "Insomnia" first appeared in the Virginia Quarterly.





                                            IN THE FOREST




                                                     The trees are lit

                                                     from within like Sabbath candles

                                                     before they are snuffed out.

                                                     Autumn is such a Jewish season,

                                                     the whole minor key of it.

                                                     Hear how the wind trembles

                                                     through the branches, vibrato

                                                     as notes of cello music.

                                                     Notice the tarnished coppers

                                                     and browns, the piles of leaves

                                                     just waiting for burning.

                                                     Though birds are no longer

                                                     in hiding, though children in bright

                                                     scarves are kicking the leaves,

                                                     I smell the smoke

                                                     and remember the winter.

                                                     Praise what is left.



                                                     "In the Forest" first appeared in Prairie Schooner.






                                                     BREAD: after Levchev




                                                     "It seems to be the five stages

                                                     of yeast, not grief,

                                                     you like to write about,"

                                                     my son says,

                                                     meaning that bread

                                                     is always rising

                                                     and falling, being broken

                                                     and eaten, in my poems.

                                                     And though he is only half serious,

                                                     I want to say to him


                                                     "bread rising in the bowl

                                                     is like breath rising in the body;"

                                                     or "if you knead the dough

                                                     with perfect tenderness,

                                                     it is like gently kneading flesh

                                                     when you make love."

                                                     Baguette . . . pita . . . pane . . .

                                                     Challah . . . naan: bread is

                                                     the universal language, translatable

                                                     on the famished tongue.


                                                     Now it is time to open

                                                     the package of yeast

                                                     and moisten it with water,

                                                     watching for its fizz,

                                                     its blind energy--proofing

                                                     it's called, the animate proof

                                                     of life.  Everything

                                                     is ready: salt, flour, oil.

                                                     Breadcrumbs are what lead

                                                     the children home.




                                                     "Bread" first appeared in Ploughshares.



To buy Linda Pastan's books, click any book cover on this page.








When I see a suckling pig turn

on the spit, its mouth around

an apple, or feel the soft

muzzle of a horse

eating a windfall from my hand,

I think about the animals

when Eden closed down,

who stole no fruit themselves.


After feeding so long

from Adam’s outstretched hand

and sleeping under the mild stars,

flank to flank,

what did they do on freezing nights?

Still ignorant of nests and lairs

did they try to warm themselves

at the fiery leaves of the first autumn?


And how did they learn to sharpen

fangs and claws?  Who taught them

the first lesson: that flesh

had been transformed to meat?

Tiger and Bear, Elk and Dove.

God saved them places on the Ark,

and Christ would honor them with

parables, calling himself the Lamb of God.


We train our dogs in strict obedience

at which we failed ourselves.

But sometimes the sound of barking

fills the night like distant artillery,

a sound as chilling as the bellow

of steers led up the ramps

of cattle cars whose gates swing

shut on them, as Eden’s did.




(from Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems)











You gave me dandelions.

They took our lawn

by squatters’ rights—

round suns rising

in April, soft moons

blowing away in June.

You gave me lady slippers,

bloodroot, milkweed,

trillium whose secret number

the children you gave me

tell.  In the hierarchy

of flowers, the wild

rise on their stems

for naming.

Call them weeds.

I pick them as I

picked you,

for their fierce,

unruly joy.




(from Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems)












The door of winter

is frozen shut,


and like the bodies

of long extinct animals, cars


lie abandoned wherever

the cold road has taken them.


How ceremonious snow is,

with what quiet severity


it turns even death to a formal



Alone at my window, I listen

to the wind,


to the small leaves clicking

in their coffins of ice.




(from Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems)











We meet at funerals

every few years—another star

in the constellation of our family

put out—and even in that failing

light, we look completely

different, completely the same.

“What are you doing now?”

we ask each other, “How

have you been?”  At these times

the past is more palpable

than our children waiting

at home or the wives and husbands tugging

at our sleeves.  “Remember . . . ?”
we ask, “Remember the time . . . ?
And laughter is as painful

as if our ribs had secret

cracks in them.

Our childhoods remain

only in the sharp bones

of our noses, the shape

of our eyes, the way our genes call out

to each other in the high-pitched notes

that only kin can hear.

How much of memory

is imagination?  And if loss

is an absence, why does it grow

so heavy?  These are the questions

we mean when we ask: “Where

are you living now?” or

“How old is your youngest?

Sometimes I feel the grief

of these occasions swell

in me until I become

an instrument in which language rises

like music.  But all

that the others can hear

is my strangled voice calling

“Goodbye . . .” calling

“Keep in touch . . .”

with the kind of sound

a bagpipe makes, its bellow heaving

and even its marching music funereal.



(from Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems)







Writer's Tip: As for advice for others, it is really simple:  Read! Read! Read!