A Private Mythology: Poems

A Private Mythology: Poems

by May Sarton

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In these poems, May Sarton reflects on a journey undertaken to celebrate her fiftieth birthday, a journey that took her around the world to Greece via Japan and India, and finally home to the New Hampshire village where she had put down roots.
Ethereal and sensual, these intensely vivid poems capture the sights and textures of new places, people, and landscapes

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In these poems, May Sarton reflects on a journey undertaken to celebrate her fiftieth birthday, a journey that took her around the world to Greece via Japan and India, and finally home to the New Hampshire village where she had put down roots.
Ethereal and sensual, these intensely vivid poems capture the sights and textures of new places, people, and landscapes as experienced with a poet's fresh eye.

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.26(d)

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A Private Mythology


By May Sarton


Copyright © 1966 May Sarton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-7432-1




    Before we could call
    America home,
    In the days of exile,
    My image of holiness
    Was Kobo Daïshi,
    Young and beautiful,
    Sitting on his lotus
    In a thin gold circle
    Of light.
    He is with me still.

    My father loved
    His fantasy, perhaps,
    To abandon wife and child
    And withdraw to a cell
    Or an austere pavilion
    With paper walls.

    From my bed
    Down the long dark hall
    I could see him
    Circled in light,
    His back always bent
    Over his desk,
    Motionless for hours.

    My mother
    Treated flowers as individuals,
    Hated clutter and confusion,
    Invented marvelous games—
    Paper skaters
    Blown across a lacquer tray—
    Knew how to make a small room
    Open and quiet.

    We lived in austere style
    Through necessity
    And because it suited us,
    An artist, a scholar,
    And their one child.
    How Japanese the rain looked
    In Cambridge,
    Slanting down in autumn!
    How Japanese the heavy snow in lumps
    On the black branches!

    It is clear to me now
    That we were all three
    A little in love with Japan.


    When I flew out into the huge night,
    Bearing with me a freight of memory,
    My parents were dead.

    I was going toward
    All they had left behind
    In the houses where we had lived,
    In the artful measure
    And sweet austerity
    Of their lives—
    That extravagance of work
    And flowers,
    Of work and music,
    Of work and faith.

    I was flying home to Japan—
    A distant relative,
    Familiar, strange,
    And full of magic.

    (for Shio Sakanishi)


    Sheltered under thick thatch,
    The paper walls
    Slide open
    To bring those ancient members of the family,
    Twelve plum trees,
    Into the house,
    Their gnarled black trunks
    And their translucent flowers.
    Two pots of pink cyclamen
    And a parti-colored cat
    Sun themselves
    On the lintel.
    I sit on a cushion
    Facing a brilliant wall of books
    And look out sideways,
    Floated between
    House and garden
    In the spring air.


    Rushing into the house
    To get bird-glasses,
    I forgot to take off my shoes—
    Of the clean, sweet-smelling
    Grass mats.

    Having worn socks
    Into the garden,
    I brought bits of dry grass
    Onto the velvety blue rug
    In the Western-style room.

    Twice shamed!



    Her name is Kyoko,
    Delicate, transparent
    As the flower of the tree.

    She tastes English
    As if it were candied fruit—
    "Mulberry," "nonchalant"—
    And blushes at "avalanche";
    Speaks of Virginia Woolf
    As "specialist
    In refined, pure,
    And sensible mind."
    Are there affinities?

    Shadows her cheek
    Like the falling plum blossom.
    When she smiles
    Her ineffable smile
    I know we have lost our way.


    Kyoko says,
    "Mat-cha will revive us."
    We sit hopefully
    In a forlorn tea house
    Chilled by the March wind.

    "First eat the rice cake;
    Then lift the cup
    In both hands
    And turn it round
    Two-and-a-half times.
    Drink the hot tea
    In exactly three sips
    And a half,
    Not forgetting
    To wipe the cup's brim
    Before you set it down."

    So we drink mat-cha
    And are restored
    By ceremony
    And, perhaps, also
    By the pale-green, foaming,
    Legendary tea.


    Four Views
    of Fujiyama

    At Oiso,
    Floating above thatched roofs—
    Or was it a dream?

    At Hakone,
    Even rosy at dawn,
    A dead volcano.

    Above feathery bamboo,
    The harsh cone,
    Stark and white.

    In snowy amplitude
    Against a bright blue sky,
    The god himself.

    On the Way
    to Lake Chuzen-ji

    We regretted the rain,
    Until we saw the mists
    Floating the mountains
    On their dragon tails.

    Lake Chuzen-ji

    Steel gray peaks,
    Dark blue lake,
    And an icy wind:
    The violence of Japan!
    Zen Monastery

    The fresh sweetness
    Of Enkaku-ji—
    Plum blossom
    Or incense?

    Three Variations
    on a Theme

    The lovely slanting rain
    And, across the fields,
    The hesitating flight
    Of parasols.

    Lines of slanting rain
    And, across the fields,
    Many small moons—
    The paper umbrellas.

    Moths? Or notes in music?
    The parasols float
    Above the fields
    In the slanting rain.

    Seen from a Train

    How sad the thatch,
    Abandoned, a mass of holes!
    The peasant in each of us
    Mourns the absence of smoke.

    In the distance
    Heavy trucks roar past;
    In the foreground,
    An old man and his bullock
    Take slow stately steps.

    A sampler of fields,
    Those leaning pagodas,
    The haystacks,
    A water-wheel,
    And the white feet of the women,
    Like rabbits.

    The Leopards
    at Nanzen-ji

    In the chill dark
    Of an early spring morning,
    The very soles of our feet
    Are warmed
    By the running of the leopards
    On the golden screens!

    So swift, no paw touches ground—
    And we are drawn back
    To look at them once more,
    As by the leaping of a flame.

    At Katsura,
    Imperial Villa

    In round straw hats,
    Squatting in the rain
    To weed the imperial moss—
    Three mushrooms.

    The Inland Sea

    Islands as clouds,
    Clouds as mountains,
    A long dream that has no end—
    And then the rain!

    Like ancient
    Hard-to-decipher poems,
    The islands write themselves
    In mist.


    Boa constrictor
    Who has swallowed
    Too many temples!

    In a Bus

    An infant boy
    Stares, solemn,
    At my nose,
    Then reaches out to touch it …
    Elephant's trunk?

    Carp Garden

    The great carp,
    Pale gold, vermilion,
    Or black,
    Move slowly
    Like underwater kings—
    Such elegance!

    Throw them a crumb—
    The majestic ones
    Become beggars
    With ugly open mouths—
    Such commotion!


"SHENSI-DAI means platform to wash a poem. The veranda may have been used in brushing up poetic ideas, while hearing the sound of Male Waterfalls near here."

Guide Book


    I seemed to sense a flight of poems
    Like a flight of cranes
    Disappearing over the waterfalls
    (Male and female)
    And perhaps settling
    In the rough ploughed field next door,
    While the ghost of an emperor,
    In an attitude of willed quiescence,
    Mixes the ink
    And arranges the brushes in vain—
    Not a single poem to wash!


    The Pavilion "Next to a Cloud"

    While the guide drones on
    In Japanese
    Which we do not understand,
    Imparting information
    We are glad to do without,
    We smell and taste
    The austere pavilion
    Open to the sound of water—
    We are next to a cloud!



    After the palaces
    Which simulate themselves
    So well,
    And each time they are rebuilt
    Become a little less real,
    A little more like lives
    Frozen in an antique gesture
    Which will never change,
    What a relief
    To come to an old house
    Where the paper walls are torn,
    Stained by a century of weather,
    And even the stranger
    Feels himself prolong
    The sustained look of love
    Toward the garden,
    A little overgrown now
    Despite the freshly raked sand.


    The crooked old guide
    Pauses a long time
    Before he speaks,
    As if he wished to be sure
    That what he describes
    Has been savored
    Before he will give out


    Here the traveler
    Becomes a child again,
    Relearning every gesture,
    Even how to eat,
    Fastidious, with chopsticks,
    A morsel at a time.
    Meals delight the eye,
    Resembling those
    We invented for our dolls—
    Honey in an acorn cup,
    A daisy center
    Laid on a maple leaf.
    So two strawberries
    Carefully nurtured
    Against a sunny wall
    May be presented
    In a small flat basket
    As the whole dessert.

    (Kyoko and I
    Fortify ourselves
    For these aesthetic pleasures
    By eating steak for lunch,
    And so have the best
    Of both worlds.)

    When I stand up
    I feel like an elephant,
    Huge and out of place.
    When I sit down again,
    Illusion returns:
    The padded kimono
    Falls in great folds around me.

    I inhabit a marvelous world
    Where every sense is taught
    New ways of perceiving.
    What led me to dare this adventure?
    To come alone—so far—
    In middle age?
    I light a cigarette
    From the brazier at my side,
    Watch the smoke curl,
    And indulge in
    Endless speculations.

    We have learned to be silent,
    Kyoko and I.


Excerpted from A Private Mythology by May Sarton. Copyright © 1966 May Sarton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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