I’m going to spend one more day, though I could easily spend a week more, trying to convince you that Carnival Evening is definitely worth your time, a perfect companion during the Covid-19 lockdown. I’ve chosen two poems which represent two themes in Pastan’s work.
Several of her poems focus on famous paintings, which I might have found frustrating before the invention of the internet since I would have to run to the library and spend at least an hour finding the painting. That’s not a problem now, though, and being able to look at the artwork while reading the poem elucidates both.
I’ll have to admit that I didn’t know who Vermeer was before I read the poem, but I did recognize a couple of his most famous paintings, just not this one, when I looked him up online. I was a little surprised to find how many references there were to this painting, particularly this one.
Woman Holding a Balance Vermeer, 1664 The picture within the picture is The Last Judgement, subdued as wallpaper in the background. And though the woman holding the scales is said to be weighing not a pearl or a coin but the heft of a single soul, this hardly matters. It is really the mystery of the ordinary we’re looking at—the way Vermeer has sanctiﬁed the same light that enters our own grimed windows each morning, touching a cheek, the fold of a dress, a jewelry box with perfect justice.
When Vermeer put an illustration of The Last Judgement in the background of his painting he seems to be suggesting a tie between that and the scale, by referring to it as “wallpaper” Pastan notes the painting while at the same time suggesting it is far less important than the “sanctified” light at the heart of the painting and her poem. Even the “weighing” of a human soul to determine its eternal fate “hardly matters” compared to this holy light. More importantly, for the reader, this is “the same light that enters/our own grimed windows/each morning…” Most of us are too preoccupied to notice the light; it takes the artist, the poet, or the photographer to remind us of this daily blessing in hopes that we, too, will see it as holy, sanctified.
Pastan’s interest in art isn’t limited to paintings, she also focuses on her art in poems about Emily Dickinson, new poets, marginalized poets, and the nature of books in general. My favorite of these types of poems is this one, which made me think that it might have been Emily Dickinson’s version of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”
postcard from cape cod just now I saw one yellow butterﬂy migrating across buzzard’s bay how brave I thought or foolish like sending a poem across months of silence and on such delicate wings
There is a nowness to the poem that transcends the years it took to reach my eyes. I can almost see the butterfly. I know many people think of poetry as a foolish waste of time, but I have never thought of it as taking courage to write poetry. Perhaps it takes courage to send it to out there for fear of appearing foolish. I like this poem because it is delicate, barely two sentences long and, yet, quite beautiful.
Pastan’s poetry reminds me not only of the Chinese and Japanese poets I’ve come to love but even more of Emily Dickinson. It’s not just the immediacy and simplicity of her poems that is reminiscent of Dickinson. There is a sadness, a shyness, a sense of isolation that pervades her poems which she transforms into wisdom.