By May Sarton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1996 Estate of May Sarton
All rights reserved.
Sunday, July 25, 1993
I am more and more aware of how important the framework is, what holds life together in a workable whole as one enters real old age, as I am doing. A body without bones would be a limp impossible mess, so a day without a steady routine would be disruptive and chaotic.
I tell myself, this marvelous blue ocean morning, that it is not ridiculous that I feel put upon if the framework gets tampered with, if I am kept waiting a half hour by a visitor, for instance, because I am ready for a visit but then use up the necessary energy by trying to be patient. These days I am rather impatient.
Yesterday the framework was done away with temporarily by Pierrot, who decided to stay out instead of sleeping on my bed with me as he usually does while I rest after lunch. He often lies on his back, a long sumptuous scarf of pale fur for me to stroke, and his purrs make me as relaxed as he is. Yesterday, for the first time in a year perhaps, he did not come, and I felt outraged, especially as he was outside meowing for his breakfast at 4:00 A.M. and, having devoured it, went right out to the field, burnished gold these days of drought, to hunt. But I had been awakened from sound sleep and never got it back.
I am reading Barbara Kingsolver's new book, Pigs in Heaven, a Bookof-the-Month Club selection. I am happy for her sake, but this novel is not as good as the one before, Animal Dreams. What seemed like a marvelously human broadness of vision about all sorts of people in the earlier book becomes a bit like a cartoon. Irony replaces tenderness. America seen as a cartoon country may make you laugh, but it is not really a pleasure. The laugh hurts and maybe that is what she means.
Monday, July 26, 1993
Pierrot came yesterday afternoon and rested with me, so that lonely time is over. Absurd, but he is a key figure in my joy these summer days. The birds bathing ecstatically in the large pottery bowl on the terrace wall are another joy I could not easily do without, and the constant stir of wings in the air another.
Susan makes everything to do such fun, cooking delicious meals and looking appreciatively at a video with me. Yesterday and the day before it has been Jane Eyre, which Sue Hilsinger and Lois gave me for my birthday.
It is not quite as overwhelmingly wonderful as Dickens's Little Dorrit, which we saw for hours last week, but it is a far more limiting scene. What I enjoy most is being inside a great English country house. I have never actually experienced this except perhaps that weekend at Dorothy Wellesley's in the thirties. That was the real thing one longs for as a tourist being "shown around" dead-feeling rooms, and oneself unrecognized.
Ruth Pitter introduced me and arranged that I join her at Penns-in-the-Rocks for a weekend. One of the things that impressed me were the extraordinary bibelots, a small table in the drawing room covered with lapis lazuli small boxes, also the decoration over the fireplace in the dining room painted by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. I watched Cornish, the butler, with admiration. Lovely to hear Dorothy addressed as "Your Grace." She looked at that time rather like the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland. I slept in the bedroom that Yeats had always slept in, enough to keep me awake hoping for a ghost. The next day Dorothy Wellesley did read from some of her poems, of which I have learned a few by heart.
I seem to hold thee like a dream
With pargeter's hands, now light now dense,
My exquisite compound of sense,
My lifted water glittered on,
My form, my matter Plato knew.
Thou art a dream within a dream;
So I am quiet till my last day,
Capable now of air or clay,
Contesting neither holding either,
Content thou in my vision too;
Take thou the hard Platonic way.
For love one way is greatly told,
But greatlier far than men have seen,
Unless within a block of ice
Within a block of veriest green
Thought makes eternal sacrifice.
It is tragic to see a genius as she was deteriorating in old age. We had no wine at dinner because Dorothy was an alcoholic, drinking claret in her bedroom all day, but Cornish was persuaded to bring me a gin and tonic, thank goodness.
How often I thought of her and Wordsworth's poem for the poet Chatterton: "We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;/But thereof come in the end despondency and madness."
Friday, July 30, 1993
Two days ago we had a tremendous time of joy and communion with three dear friends, Nancy and George Mairs and Susan Kenney. George is so expert at getting Nancy out of the car and into her special wheelchair it seems like an easy thing, but of course, it is difficult, and then the wheelchair has to go over the flat stones of the path and terrace and up two steps into the house. Nancy has MS and George has cancer, in remission now, but last year it was very bad, so they are a little like magicians making the impossible happen every day. What flows out to others is simply love, such warm, understanding love, one feels nourished and blissful.
Susan Kenney lost her beloved husband, Ed, eight months ago. For two years her life was given over to taking him back and forth from hospitals and the doctors hoping to find a cure or even at one time a diagnosis. It was a long hell.
We were all walking wounded except Susan, the youngest of us, and all writers except George. It is so rare for me to be with writers, writers I greatly admire and feel at home with. That was bliss also.
Champagne is the best drink to foster good conversation, and we created it together for almost two hours. I felt quite exhausted then, but fulfilled in some area of my being which is often rather bereft.
I don't suppose anything can happen as life-giving as this for a year—I'll be thinking of it often.
Saturday, July 31, 1993
Today a remarkable letter from Cathy Sander, the Wellesley student who was hired by Eleanor Blair to do odd jobs and became deeply involved and caring in the last two years. There is something so touching about that relationship between an eighteen-year-old and a ninety-six-year-old woman, blind and quite deaf, living alone, coming to the end of her strength. Cathy says in her letter:
"You know, May, the most giving relationship I've had my entire life was with Eleanor. I always felt so loved when I was with her. Eleanor really taught me how to love, to give of myself without asking in return, to love because love is beautiful not because I want love in return. Our love for each other just seemed to flow, giving and taking in turn. The hours I spent with her were among the best times in my life. Nothing was expected. Nothing was taken that was not offered."
Otherwise a rather dim day here, humid and foggy. I'm packing up copies of Encore for friends, and it is fun but tires me. However, I did manage to write Cathy right away, an imperative.
Sunday, August 1, 1993
How good it is to see old friends after a long interval and pick up as though one had seen them a day before. Serena Sue Hilsinger and Lois Byrnes made the percipient selections for my Selected Poems, which remains the best introduction to my poetry and goes on selling year after year.
Sue and Lois are such invigorating people, and we had so much to talk about that I was hardly tired at all after two hours, even though they only arrived near 1:00 P.M. instead of noon because of the traffic.
Of course, they were interested in the books about me, the new event this year, books published by the university presses. There are two remarkably interesting books: That Great Sanity, Critical Essays on May Sarton, edited by Susan Swartzlander and Marilyn R. Mumford, University of Michigan Press; and A House of Gathering, Poets on May Sarton's Poetry, edited by Marilyn Kallet, University of Tennessee Press, for me a dream come true, serious critical consideration of the poetry.
Sue teaches Mrs. Stevens every year at Clark University and says her students are "crazy about your work."
They commented that bookstores everywhere, even Belfast, Maine, had shelves of my books. It is heartening.
As we talked about the horrendous state of the world, Lois said she had stopped reading newspapers this year, but she added, "You have never ceased to face the worst in your poems, 'At Kent State,' the Holocaust poems."
I felt restored by their love and their true admiration for my work, and also restored by their warm, beautiful presences. They look so well, flourishing, and now have five cats they tell me. It was all a summer holiday for me who cannot travel these days, a visit resembling a dazzling trip.
Tuesday, August 3, 1993
My mother's birthday. Pat Carroll is bringing my lunch. What a lucky woman I am! And Susan is taking me out to dinner. I think about how wonderful it would be if my parents had seen this place. I imagine my mother in the chaise on the terrace, my father smoking a cigar. But I learned from Margot Peters, who knows everything I forget because she is my biographer, that both my parents died in their seventies, my father five years after my mother. Seventy seems so young! And I feel lonely because they never knew what real old age asks of one, what an effort it becomes even to get dressed. I can't take courage from their old age and so feel somehow put upon.
The night before last I hardly slept. I have been too shaky to get down to the picking garden for months, but day before yesterday, after Lois and Sue had gone, I suddenly wanted to see what was what, got my cane, and set out with Susan to support me the hundred yards or so. What met my astonished eyes was simply a very large garden of weeds, dotted by a few struggling nasturtiums. I had spent about forty dollars on seeds, most from Thompson and Morgan—where were the cosmos, the zinnias, the calendulas, the poppies, love-in-a-mist, bachelor's buttons? Not anything to be seen but rich, flourishing grass!
I could not sleep, I felt too dismal. Pat Robinson, who gardens for me, gets four hundred dollars a month, but that only provides five hours a week and it is a big garden, before the terrace and behind the house and along the fence, so the picking garden is a small part of what has to be done, and five hours a week is not enough. I cannot afford more, and all night I worried about this and felt despair. I have created a visually lovely garden for twenty years, and now do I have to watch it disintegrate? A bad night—
—followed by a long nerve-racking wait for the Salvation Army to pick up a lot of bags and boxes of clothes because I lost fifty pounds last year and so cannot wear a lot of beautiful things. The wretched driver never did find us though I had given him directions. Susan had to go down and meet him in York.
Yesterday was a frustrating day altogether. We did not even look at a video although the afternoon before we had laughed very much at Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act and eaten a huge bowl of popcorn. I have been rereading Nancy Mairs's book Ordinary Time. It is right to reread it now when I have been so miserable at how little we Americans seem to care about Sarajevo or whether Clinton gets some support at long last after all the meanness of spirit.
What Nancy says is that we must simply do something ourselves, whatever we can, instead of being so overwhelmed by the bad news everywhere that we become passive. Act now to wrest some positive thing out of the chaos.
Wednesday, August 4, 1993
Eric Swenson is coming at eleven. I have spent one hour trying to find a paper I need to photocopy, a business letter. It came yesterday or the day before, and as so many other things have in these forgetful years, it has disappeared. Susan tells me when I have lost something, "Don't say 'lost,' just 'misplaced.'" Sometimes she can find things for me that I have called "lost."
Thursday, August 5, 1993
And she did find the letter!
Pat Carroll came like an angelic godmother on August 3, bearing sandwiches and brownies for our lunch, and such wonderful talk ensued. Unlike most stars, she is very human and never apparently "acting" herself offstage. Of course, there is always the hearty, infectious laughter. I read her the poem "For My Mother," which I wrote last year, the only one I have managed to do that seems almost worthy. She was a Leo, and Pat was interesting about Leos she knows, who are apt, she said, to be very aggressive. My mother was not at all. Unless the lion was roused by an injustice. For instance, when the Germans invaded Belgium in 1914 and soldiers marching through our village at Wondelgem climbed the fence to steal plums, Mother was so furious she forgot the danger and ran out and berated them. They climbed out of the tree very meekly and went on their way. She might have been shot.
I ask myself, captivated by Pat, this bundle of energy, How can anyone as childlike in her abundance also be so wise? She is looking indomitable and will soon, she told me, be directing a production of Alice in Wonderland. As a child Pat loved Alice whereas I found her terribly irritating and only enjoyed her when I was grown up and Le Gallienne did her production at the Civic.
Pat, like me, was an only child, which is a great bond. She has grown-up children, but she told me how lonely it is for an only child when the mother dies. She was speaking of herself. True, you simply have to go it alone in a new strange way. Sylvia Frieze was here one day when I was feeling very ill and I said, "Even at eighty-one, when you are ill, you want your mother." Dear Sylvia had tears in her eyes. Her mother died when she was ten, the youngest of nine children.
After our communion here on Tuesday it was lovely to know we would be at the matinee of Nunsense, which Pat is playing in Ogunquit, so I would see her onstage as well. The musical comedy creates a great deal of innocent merriment. Hard to take ones eyes off Pat's marvelously expressive face even when others are singing.
Eric Swenson came yesterday morning, and we too had a good talk about everything. He promised Norton would do some advertising on Encore, which has sold 11,500 although it only comes out August 15. It was cheering to hear how committed they still are, though Eric is now officially retired.
He is a few years younger than I and still sails his boat in the Bermuda race and just now the Halifax race with a crew of thirteen.
He wants a few more poems for the book of new poems which they will publish next year, so I must try to invent, easier said than done. Poetry is a a balky donkey.
Saturday, August 7, 1993
On Reading the Greek Anthology
This people with unchanging vision sees
The silent-footed hours,
That love as simply as the almond trees
In his season flowers,
That certain as the winter to the wood
Is sorrow for the beautiful and good.
Frances Cornford, the granddaughter of Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgwood, and daughter of Francis Darwin and Emma Crofts, was born in 1886. She married Francis Cornford, a professor of classics at Cambridge University, and lived in Cambridge until her death. She had a daughter and three sons, one of whom, John, fought in Spain and died in that war at twenty-one. She published seven or eight books of poems, of which the last two were Collected Poems, 1954, and On a Calm Shore, 1960. In 1959 she was awarded the Queen's Medal for Poetry.
Louise Bogan used to say that it might be fun to compile a silver treasury of lyric poems. By "silver," I believe she envisioned a collection of minor perfect lyrics, many of them by women. The pure lyric is never in fashion and never out of fashion. It stands outside time and comes to any poet as a Providential gift. We cannot call such poems great, but they are rare and precious. A very few poets have written nothing else, Housman, for example, and Frances Cornford is among them. Pure lyrics embed themselves in the memory and have the power to haunt. They may be elegiac or explosive, ironic or passionate, but they always strike the ear as the closest thing in poetry to song itself and have the same power to move the reader beyond reason. (Continues...)
Excerpted from At Eighty-Two by May Sarton. Copyright © 1996 Estate of May Sarton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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