In the poems of Linda Pastan, what's most obvious about them both announces and conceals what's most interesting.
Pastan, 74, is a mother of three and grandmother of seven, and her four decades of published work are set largely in the realm of home and family. Her poems are brief, her vocabulary familiar, her references to art, literature and history common holdings or made sociable by context. In short, Pastan is the sort of accessible poet who becomes a poet laureate -- a post she formerly held in Maryland.
Yet if Pastan's elegantly simple poems are easy to get to know, they are challenging to live with. True, her verse is flecked with dry humor and moments of joy. Pastan often consecrates what she's called the "mystery of the ordinary." In "Anna at 18 Months," she celebrated the everyday wonder of speech: "[T]he floodgates are open wide and out of her dauntless mouth spill rough-hewn syllables for elbow, eyes, for chin."
But what's characteristic in Pastan is ambivalence, even foreboding. "My main subject [has been] the possibility of loss that's always lurking," she says in a phone interview from her home in Potomac, Md. Wryly, she adds, "Not just the possibility, but in my case the expectation."
In "After Minor Surgery," a younger Pastan wrote, "This is the dress rehearsal, when the body like a constant lover flirts for the first time with faithlessness." Pastan is the one who's always "noticing the skeleton embossed on every leaf," or rejecting self-help nostrums, as in "The Five Stages of Grief": "Go that way, they said, it's easy, like learning to climb stairs after the amputation." Even in a poem titled "The Happiest Day," Pastan recalls a distant interlude as one in which she was happy but missed it -- or perhaps was happy only because she wasn't thinking about being happy.
If her conciseness, wit and housebound sensibility earn comparisons to Emily Dickinson, Pastan -- who during her 20s gave up writing to be a housewife and mother -- seems less often to write from inside a Dickinsonian metaphysical solitude than as one longing for such solitude amidst domesticity.
A recurring idea in Pastan's work is that of Eden -- "The Imperfect Paradise," she's called it. The ambivalence of Eve and Penelope fascinate her. In "The Way the Leaves Keep Falling," Pastan wrote, "sometimes I think it was the tidiness of that garden Eve hated, all the wooden tags with the new names of plants and trees."
Pastan has a new collection out, Queen of a Rainy Country (W.W. Norton), and admits she has "no serious complaints about my life." Still, she acknowledges, she's been "preoccupied with death" since age 25 or so. It's a habit of mind that hasn't lessened as she's watched friends and family die. These days, she adds, death is "just something that's right around the corner."
Linda Pastan and poet and translator Karen Kovacik read and receive the Charity Randall Award at the International Poetry Forum 8 p.m. Wed., March 7. Carnegie Library Lecture Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $12 ($8 students/seniors). 412-621-9893 or www.thepoetryforum.org