Linda Pastan's "Leaving the Island"

Updated on April 8, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Linda Pastan

Source

Introduction and Text of "Leaving the Island"

At the end of a lovely summer vacation, the speaker in Linda Pastan's "Leaving the Island" dramatizes the sadness that the vacationers experience as they prepare for the end of their vacation, packing up to head back home and leaving their summer paradise.

Leaving the Island

We roll up the rugs and strip the beds by rote,
Summer expires as it has done before.
The ferry is no simple pleasure boat

Nor are we simply cargo, though we’ll float
Alongside heavy trucks — their stink and roar.
We roll up rugs and strip the beds by rote.

This bit of land whose lines the glaciers wrote
Becomes the muse of memory once more;
The ferry is no simple pleasure boat.

I’ll trade my swimsuit for a woolen coat;
The torch of autumn has but small allure.
We roll up rugs and strip the beds by rote.

The absences these empty shells denote
Suggest the losses winter has in store.
The ferry is no simple pleasure boat.

The songs of summer dwindle to one note;
The fog horn’s blast (which drowns this closing door.)
We rolled up rugs and stripped the beds by rote.
The ferry is no simple pleasure boat.

Note: For a reading of Linda Pastan's "Leaving the Island" by Charlotte Maier

Commentary

Linda Pastan's speaker in this well-crafted, traditional villanelle, "Leaving the Island," reveals the melancholy that accompanies the end of summer.

First Tercet: Summer Vacation

We roll up the rugs and strip the beds by rote,
Summer expires as it has done before.
The ferry is no simple pleasure boat

The vacationers, likely a family, have come to this island many times, and it has, thus, become a routine that at the end of each summer retreat, they roll up the rugs and strip the beds; these two activities represent the entire routine involved in preparing to leave their summer vacation behind. The speaker then reports that summer is ending as it always does.

The family has to board a ferry to travel back to the mainland, but the ride at the end of summer is no simple pleasure boat. The ferry itself becomes part of the working world; it is utilitarian rather than purposed for simple fun and leisure, as it, no doubt, would have seemed at the beginning of this holiday.

Second Tercet: Family Cargo

Nor are we simply cargo, though we’ll float
Alongside heavy trucks — their stink and roar.
We roll up rugs and strip the beds by rote.

The family is not simply cargo, even though they will float back to the mainland, "Alongside heavy trucks their stink and roar." The vacationers are precious cargo because they are thinking, feeling human beings.

After mentioning the stink and roar of actual cargo, the speaker's melancholy returns, and she repeats the line that contains the prompt for her melancholy: "We roll up rugs and strip the beds by rote."

Third Tercet: On the Island

This bit of land whose lines the glaciers wrote
Becomes the muse of memory once more;
The ferry is no simple pleasure boat.

The island on which the vacationers have been enjoying their leisure is but a bit of land which was formed by glaciers. The speaker picturesquely describes that glacial formation as lines the glaciers wrote.

Henceforth the speaker will have to be satisfied enjoying the memories of the time on the island and the pleasures gained from the summer days she has spent there. Then again, as all speakers in all well-crafted, traditional villanelles do, this speaker's attention again turns to the prompt of melancholy. This time she repeats, "The ferry is no simple pleasure boat."

Fourth Tercet: Looking Ahead

I’ll trade my swimsuit for a woolen coat;
The torch of autumn has but small allure.
We roll up rugs and strip the beds by rote.

Projecting ahead to winter, the speaker reports that instead of the swimsuit which she has lived in during the summer, she will be confined to a woolen coat. Making it obvious that she is a summer person, she admits that autumn has but small allure. Then the melancholic refrain again intrudes, "We roll up rugs and strip the beds by rote."

Fifth Tercet: Melancholy of Winter

The absences these empty shells denote
Suggest the losses winter has in store.
The ferry is no simple pleasure boat.

The melancholy grows with each new stanza and so by the fifth tercet, the speaker is bemoaning the emptiness that winter has in store. She sees absences in these empty shells. She then harkens back to the refrain of the ferry: "The ferry is no simple pleasure boat."

Final Quatrain: The Music of Summer Leisure

The songs of summer dwindle to one note;
The fog horn’s blast (which drowns this closing door.)
We rolled up rugs and stripped the beds by rote.
The ferry is no simple pleasure boat.

Summer has been filled with the beautiful music of leisurely, sun-filled, carefree days, but now those songs of summer dwindle to one note. And that note is the fog horn's blast, which seems to sound as they shut the door both literally and figuratively on their beautiful summer vacation.

The villanelle concludes with those two haunting lines of refrain: "We rolled up rugs and stripped the beds by rote. / The ferry is no simple pleasure boat."

Poet Laureate of Maryland: Linda Pastan

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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