Pastan’s latest collection reaches beyond the usual everyday subjects and themes of a “domestic poet,” a label that has long underrated her abilities. While many of the poems in Traveling Light continue to display her familiar manner of sensing dangers that lurk beneath quotidian objects and rituals, Pastan demonstrates her broader capabilities by grappling with more political matters in the fourth section of the book, “Somewhere in The World.”
In the uncharacteristically political fourth section, Pastan comments upon a number of defining historical moments, including World War II, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and most intensely, the September 11 terrorist attacks. These events are often personalized, brought down from abstraction to the level of an experiencing individual at a specific moment. Consider, for example, the short poem “Anniversary”:
For us it was the anniversary
of love–September 11th,
the day my parents met, a year later
the day they married.
So when I see or hear that date,
my heart by habit lifts
for a moment, just before
staining the calendar.
Present here are Pastan’s classic distinguishing qualities–the discovery of the extraordinary within the ordinary, the concrete image at the center, the simple and elegant language, the ominous tone. But while history often represents cyclical loss and failure in Pastan’s poems, it would be erroneous to classify her as a negative poet. Pastan’s pessimistic expectance of loss may permeate through her poems, but it is overcome by her faith in the individual’s innate moral goodness and power to turn any course of events. In “Weights and Measures,” for example, she argues that one’s ultimate natural allegiance will not be to any political or ideological stance, but rather, to love:
Wouldn’t I break my word,
wrap myself in any flag (stars,
or sickle, or rising sun) just
to be with you? …
In other sections of the book, nowhere are Pastan’s talents more compelling than when she reflects upon her state as an aging woman. Absent are the clichéd complaints one would expect over the loss of physical beauty. In their place are nuanced meditations on the oppositions that animate life–youth and old age, forgetting and remembering, change and permanence, sadness and joy, good and evil, destruction and renewal. In mediating between these oppositions, Pastan asserts her ever forceful mind and impassioned spirit over her failing body as she does in “Any Woman”:
Age has nothing to do with me.
Lust still raises its purple flag
and envy its green one–
don’t I repent the same sins
every year, make the same resolutions?
Particularly evocative and lyrical are Pastan’s Eden poems, which summon the archetypal figure of Eve to explore women’s complexities and concerns. Pastan’s Eve is not Milton’s passive and subservient Eve, but an Eve who took a lover, who questions God’s motives, and who takes credit for the Fall as the unifying narrative of humankind. And just as Pastan is given to weighing oppositions, so does her Eve embody both humankind’s most exalted qualities and most dangerous faults. This Eve is all at once sensual, astute, vain, foolhardy, wise, and vulnerable.
Pastan’s “mind of spring,” the vividness and potency of her thoughts and feelings, shows through her keen powers of observation and illumination. At each turn in Traveling Light, the reader is surprised with a startling image and recalled to a profound truth previously taken for granted or neglected. Pastan attunes us to the possibilities of each given moment, to their dangers and rewards, and in doing so enriches the kinds of realities we can create.