by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
May Sarton (1912-1995) wrote in her Journal of a Solitude: “There is no doubt that solitude is a challenge and to maintain balance within it a precarious business. But I must not forget that, for me, being with people or even with one beloved person for any length of time without solitude is even worse. I lose my center. I feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces. I must have time alone in which to mull over my encounter, and to extract its juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it.”
The ever-increasing cacophony of modern civilization, our instantaneous connection to events large and small at home and abroad, often make me feel overwhelmed, unable to hear the “still, small voice” within my mind. At such times, I turn to poetry written by authors like May Sarton, who show the value of taking time away from all the noise.
May Sarton (born Eleanore Marie Sarton), was an only child. Her parents fled with their two-year-old daughter from their Belgian homeland when the Germans invaded in 1914, first to Britain, and then on to America. Her father, who was a chemist, went to work at Harvard, and got a grant from the Carnegie Foundation. He became one of the notable 20th century historians of science. Her mother was English artist Mabel Eleanor Elwes.
At the beginning of the Great Depression, Sarton won a scholarship to Vassar, but disappointed her scholarly father by becoming an apprentice at the Civic Repertory Theatre, founded by the legendary actress Eva Le Gallienne. Later, Sarton founded her own company, the Associated Actors Theatre, but it failed in 1935, so she exited from the stage to concentrate on her writing. For the rest of her life, she earned her living as an author, and from teaching others about writing. She published her first poetry collection, Encounter in April, in 1937.
May Sarton started in “civilization,” passed through the theatre into writing, traveled in Europe, spent some time in New Mexico, where she found love with college professor Judy Matlack, then went off to live in a New Hampshire village, and finally still farther out into an isolated house at the end of a long dirt road on the Maine coast. She was the consummate Writer, as notable for her wonderful memoirs and journals as for her poetry. She was ‘full of honors’ by the time old age crippled her. Even after a serious stroke, she continued her work by dictation, working on At Eighty-Two the year before she died.
Lifting myself up
Like a heavy weight,
Old camel getting to her knees,
I think of my mother
And the inexhaustible flame
That kept her alive
Until she died.
She knew all about fatigue
And how one pushes it aside
For staking up the lilies
Early in the morning,
The way one pushes it aside
For a friend in need,
For a hungry cat.
Mother, be with me.
Today on your birthday
I am older than you were
When you died
Thirty-five years ago.
Thinking of you
The old camel gets to her knees,
Moves forward slowly
Into the new day.
If you taught me one thing
It was never to fail life.
Lose the pain in the snow
Where all footsteps melt
And the magic trance
Bids you rise and follow
Forgetting all you felt
Except the dance, except the dance.
Lose the pain in the love
Where all being flows
Though the step is intricate
Still as through the dance you move
Silently the pattern grows
To include, not to reject.
Lose the pain in the living
Where the self however haunted
Dances on because it must,
All forgiving, all forgiving,
Lose again all that you wanted
Except trust, except trust.
Lose the pain in the faith
Gladly as the dance grows graver,
Loving and living both let go,
Love and pain danced to death
Let the dancer never waver
Drawing patterns on the snow.
Silence is never cruel, no
For silence keeps the myths
By which we learn to measure
Reality against the world
Of magic animals and snow,
The sword that cuts proud wreaths,
The unicorn we come to treasure
For where he kneels spring is unfurled.
In silence only the myth grows,
What is reality to keep
The truth that love has dared
Build in the air, build on the desert?
Beside the invisible rose
The real rose falls or falls asleep
The flower of the silence is a word
That no real word can touch or hurt.
And memory, the cutting sword:
Fall, the proud wreaths proudly hurled,
The fleshly rose torn and gone.
Only the myth held in the mind,
Only the myth held in the word,
Resists, resists the whole real world
And stands immortal and alone,
And silence blesses it, is kind.
Cats were often her sole companions. Few writers have captured these friends as well as May Sarton.
The Ten Commandments of the Gentleman Cat
A Gentleman Cat has an immaculate shirt front and paws at all times.
A Gentleman Cat allows no constraint of his person, even loving constraint.
A Gentleman Cat does not mew except in extremity. He makes his wishes known and waits.
When addressed, A Gentleman Cat does not move a muscle. He looks as if he hadn’t heard.
When frightened, A Gentleman Cat looks bored.
A Gentleman Cat takes no interest in other people’s affairs, unless he is directly concerned.
A Gentleman Cat approaches food slowly, however hungry he may be, and decides at least three feet away whether it is Good, Fair, Passable, or Unworthy. If Unworthy, he pretends to scratch earth over it.
A Gentleman Cat gives thanks for a Worthy meal, by licking the plate so clean that a person might think it had been washed.
A Gentleman Cat is never hasty when choosing a housekeeper.
(for Bramble, my cat)
She was the wilderness in me
The secret solitary place
Where grow the healing herbs.
We had recognized each other
Years ago; the bond was deep.
Now since her death
Two seasons ago
The landscape is ghostly.
No small black and gold panther
Steals through the long grasses
And pounces on a mouse.
No one curls up on the terrace wall
Gathering the day together.
No round shadow sits on my sill
Late at night, waiting to be let in,
And then in one jump comes to lie beside me,
A long pillow of purrs along my back.
Distant, passionate one,
I miss you in my bones.
I miss you in my heartbeat.
I have mourned you for nine months.
What does not leave me
Is your great luminous eye
Open to its golden rim,
The darkness so dark, the deepness so deep there
I wanted to go with you to death
But in a few seconds
The needle did its good work.
You had gone-
And in a new time
I grow old without you.
It is all very still now,
The grief washed out.
For all her need for solitude, Sarton was still very much aware of what was going on in the world, Here are two of her poems written in reaction to national tragedies, one from the 1960s, and the other written in the late 1980s.
Who wakes now who lay blind with sleep?
Who starts bright-eyed with anger from his bed?
I do. I, the plain citizen. I cannot sleep.
I hold the torturing fire in my head.
I, an American, call the dead Negro’s name,
And in the hot dark of the city night
I walk the streets alone and sweat with shame.
Too late to rise, to raise the dead too late.
This is the harvest. The seeds sown long ago –
The careless word, sly thought, excusing glance.
I reap now everything I let pass, let go.
This is the harvest of my own indifference.
I, the plain citizen, have grown disorder
In my own world. It is not what I meant.
But dreams and images are potent and can murder.
I stand accused of them. I am not innocent.
Can I now plant imagination, honesty,
And love, where violence and terror were unbound –
The images of hope, the dream’s responsibility?
Those who died here were murdered in my mind.
AIDS, a poem
We are stretched to meet a new dimension
Of love, a more demanding range
Where despair and hope must intertwine.
How grow to meet it? Intention
Here can neither move nor change
The raw truth. Death is on the line.
It comes to separate and estrange
Lover from lover in some reckless design.
Where do we go from here?
Fear. Fear. Fear. Fear
Our world has never been more stark
Or more in peril.
It is very lonely now in the dark.
Lonely and sterile.
And yet in the simple turn of a head
Mercy lives. I heard it when someone said
“I must go now to a dying friend.
Every night at nine I tuck him into bed,
And give him a shot of morphine,”
And added, “I go where I have never been.”
I saw he meant into a new discipline
He had not imagined before, and a new grace.
Every day now we meet face to face.
Every day now devotion is the test.
Through the long hours, the hard, caring nights
We are forging a new union. We are blest.
As closed hands open to each other
Closed lives open to strange tenderness.
We are learning the hard way how to mother.
Who says it is easy? But we have the power.
I watch the faces deepen all around me.
It is the time of change, the saving hour.
The word is not fear, the word we live,
But an old word suddenly made new,
As we learn it again, as we bring it alive:
Love. Love. Love. Love.
But Sarton’s strength came from looking inward.
When a Woman Feels Alone
‘When a woman feels alone, when the room
is full of daemons,” the Nootka tribe
Tells us, ‘The Old Woman will be there.”
She has come to me over three thousand miles
And what does she have to tell me, troubled
“by phantoms in the night”?
Is she really here?
What is the saving word from so deep in the past.
From as deep as the ancient root of the redwood,
From as deep as the primal bed of the ocean,
From as deep as a woman’s heart sprung open
Again through a hard birth or a hard death?
Here under the shock of love, I am open
To you, Primal Spirit, one with rock and wave,
One with survivors of flood and fire,
Who have rebuilt their homes a million times,
Who have lost their children and borne them again.
The words I hear are strength, laughter, endurance.
Old Woman I meet you deep inside myself.
There in the rootbed of fertility,
World without end, as the legend tells it.
Under the words you are my silence.
Now I Become Myself
Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
‘Hurry, you will be dead before-‘
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!
As she reminds us:
Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.
We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove
Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.
- Encounter in April(1937)
- Inner Landscape(1939)
- The Lion and the Rose(1948)
- The Land of Silence(1953)
- In Time Like Air(1958)
- Cloud, Stone, Sun, Vine(1961)
- A Private Mythology(1966)
- As Does New Hampshire(1967)
- A Grain of Mustard Seed(1971)
- A Durable Fire(1972)
- Collected Poems, 1930-1973(1974)
- Selected Poems of May Sarton(Serena Sue Hilsinger & Lois Brynes, editors) (1978)
- Halfway to Silence(1980)
- Letters from Maine(1984)
- Collected Poems, 1930-1993(1993)
- Coming Into Eighty(1994) – Winner of the Levinson Prize
- From May Sarton’s Well: Writings of May Sarton(Edith Royce Schade, editor) (1999)
- I Knew a Phoenix: Sketches for an Autobiography(1959)
- Plant Dreaming Deep(1968)
- Journal of a Solitude(1973)
- A World of Light(1976)
- The House by the Sea(1977)
- Recovering: A Journal(1980)
- Writings on Writing(1980)
- May Sarton: A Self-Portrait(1982)
- At Seventy: A Journal(1984)
- After the Stroke(1988)
- Endgame: A Journal of the Seventy-Ninth Year(1992)
- Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year(1993)
- At Eighty-Two(1996)
- The Single Hound(1938)
- The Bridge of Years(1946)
- The Return of Corporal Greene(1946)
- Shadow of a Man(1950)
- A Shower of Summer Days(1952)
- Faithful are the Wounds(1955)
- The Birth of a Grandfather(1957)
- The Fur Person(1957)
- The Small Room(1961)
- Joanna and Ulysses(1963)
- Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965)
- Miss Pickthorn and Mr. Hare(1966)
- The Poet and the Donkey(1969)
- Kinds of Love (1970)
- As We Are Now(1973)
- Crucial Conversations(1975)
- A Reckoning(1978)
- Anger (1982)
- The Magnificent Spinster(1985)
- The Education of Harriet Hatfield(1989)
- Punch’s Secret(1974)
- A Walk Through the Woods(1976)
- May Sarton as an old woman
- Tang dynasty – Terracotta sculpture of a Kneeling Camel
- Olga K Snow Feet Day by bocukom.com
- White Cloud climbing roses
- Tuxedo cat
- The Fur Person bookcover illustration by David Canright
- Headline, Martin Luther King Jr Shot
- Larry Hawkins, a gay man who was a social worker before contracting AIDS
- Nootka tribe – old woman
- Three portraits of May Sarton as a teen, a young woman and in middle age
- Wheelbarrow garden
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud