I Am Haunted By Lilacs

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In Linda Pastan’s thirteenth book of poetry, Traveling Light, we enter into themes of aging, dying, time’s ticking clock, and the natural world.

Linda Pastan is an old school poet. She is not the hipster with a flask in his pocket walking urban streets or the heady young intellectual whose sonnets are an abstract maze of whatssup. Pastan is a poet that many of us read when we were first were introduced to contemporary poetry, a more accessible poet, someone like William Stafford or Naomi Shihab Nye. She steps into the group of narrative poets who write to share an experience, to connect, to slow us down and consider life. In Linda Pastan’s thirteenth book of poetry, Traveling Light, we enter into themes of aging, dying, time’s ticking clock, and the natural world.

Her poems return us to nature, not with a lot of wordplay or surrealism, but with the intent to relate experience, share splendor and to be understood. This is not to say her poems are simple; they are not. Pastan’s poems revisit many iconic images of Eve and the garden, poetic allusions of lilacs and March, and offer more to the conversation besides beauty. For example, the poem, “Lilacs” where the speaker mentions Whitman, then remembers her mother, her childhood, and ponders:

I may finally find myself
somewhere beyond the treeline,
beyond loss.

For though I don’t believe
in ghosts, I am haunted by lilacs.

A few pages later her poem, “Purple,” meditates on the idea that a color found so commonly in nature seems to mirror pain:

A bruised evening sky hurts more
than absolute darkness:

purple should be the color
of mourning.

We are in an age of loss and time passing. While these common themes and subjects may not surprise some readers, many of her poems to take us somewhere new as in the poem “Q & A,” where the speaker is asked:

“Did you write

your Emily Dickinson poem
because you like her work
or did you know her personally?”
I entered another territory.

“Do I really look that old?”
I wanted to reply, or “Don’t
they teach you anything?”
or “What did you just say?”

These are the poems that stand out. These unique experiences and Pastan’s humor was a satisfying surprise sprinkled throughout this collection. Another example of her humor is the son speaking in her poem, “Bread”:

“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, and being broken
and eaten, in my poems.

While much of this collection satisfies, a few of her poems didn’t quite work for this reader, such as “Tulips” which describes the petals on the tablecloth as “uvulas spilling gold” and “Listening to Bob Dylan, 2005” ends with “foxes in the hen house/freedom on the rack./Somebody sing something!/The times are a-changin’ back.” These poems made me wonder if they were included because they came with the author name of “Linda Pastan,” in the way that even the average Picasso painting is still a Picasso.

But this is the challenge of well-known poets, whose works have been praised and published over and over—how to know which are your best poems if journals, magazines, and presses are knocking on your door? However, this is a small complaint. Mostly this book offers me hope that poets such as Pastan can keep writing and pleasing their audience with what they do best—sharing a moment, slowing us down, bringing the nature outside our doors into our living rooms through their pages, reminding us that we are all only here a little while so we need to stop, take a look around, see what lies ahead.

Kelli Russell Agodon’s fourth collection of poems, Dialogues with Rising Tides, will be published by Copper Canyon Press in 2021. She is the cofounder of Two Sylvias Press as well as the Co-Director of Poets on the Coast: A Weekend Writing Retreat for Women. Agodon lives in a sleepy seaside town in Washington State where she is an avid paddleboarder and hiker. More from this author →