Reading May Sarton in May

My reading this spring had been academic, for a biography I am researching, or compulsory, novels for reviews. But now with the semester over I had come not to a writing block but a reading block, that moment when your bookmark in the latest volume just refuses to move a page. I had to do something.

So I roamed my own library, looking for escapist adventure, a journey story of someone tramping across the Arctic or climbing mountains or traveling across the country in a covered wagon. I own plenty of such books. I thumbed through a few and even eyed my well-thumbed copy of John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley.”

Nothing satisfied. And then I spotted May Sarton.

I first read May Sarton when I was newly married and a new mother. I don’t remember which book I discovered first; it might have been one of the novels, “Kinds of Love” or “The Birth of a Grandfather.” But I think it was “Journal of a Solitude,” the first of the journal memoirs about the house she leased in York, Maine beginning in 1973. I was instantly captivated by the intimacy of her voice, her acknowledgement of her deepest anxieties (though she remained almost pathologically blind to her own faults), and crystalized vision. And though we had nothing in common – she was single, childless, a lesbian, Belgian by birth and still somewhat European in her thinking – she related her inner life with such exactitude it didn’t matter. That is precisely the reason why her fans were male, female, straight, gay, religious, agnostic, and from every corner of the globe. She spoke to the human heart.

So I picked up “At Seventy,” the journal written in 1982-83 and published two years later. Instantly I was cocooned back inside May’s seaside world in that rambling house, Wild Knoll, where she slept on the second floor listening to the sea and wrote from the third floor with a view of the same. Here again were her two pets and walking companions, the faithful dog Tamas and the bird-killer Bramble. A whole host of friends came and went – women she had loved, neighbors whom she depended on, fellow writers and artists who nourished her soul.

Familiar, too, were the wild swings of her moods, which were never her fault – the friendships ruined by her outburts and crying fits, the door slamming, the angry phone calls, the obsessions with women who often were neither gay nor interested. But it’s a package deal: If you want to step into May Sarton’s inner life, her musings about art and roses, you have to accept the tempestuous and irrational mind in which they lived.

It has become a cliché to say that we never read the same book twice, because we as readers have changed. Certainly at 60 I am not the same woman I was at 30, with a new baby and a husband who worked nights, leaving me a scarce hour in the evening to read.

For one thing, I know more about writers and writing than I did then. Although I had read Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” in my twenties, I had yet to read any of Woolf’s other books, biographies of her, her letters or her journals. Now, with a little more of that background, I was keenly interested in May’s tea times with Virginia, who never gave the newly published poet and novelist the plaudits she sought. How ironic that Woolf would write to Sarton in the way May herself years later reacted to such need: “I was glad to get your letter, in spite of the request you make in it; and in spite of the fact I have no time to answer it.” (Sarton was trying to get the Hogarth Press interested in a friend’s manuscript, actually, not her own.)

I find myself underlining and commenting on Sarton in the margins, a habit I had not developed at 30. I was mostly reading library books then that could not be annotated. Now I freely underline and comment, and as I ranged through “At Seventy” to “After the Stroke” and “Endgame,” I took up pencil in hand.

In “Endgame,” Sarton’s close look at a daffodil – “When you think about it, we almost never pay absolute attention” – reminded me of what Georgia O’Keeffe wrote: “Still – in a way – nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” At 30 I knew little more about O’Keeffe than she painted desert flowers. Now I could have a conversation with May about just this.

And when Sarton wrote about New Mexico, where she met her longtime companion Judy Matlack, the “gentle, magnificent” Sangre de Cristo mountains instantly brought to mind Edwin Way Teale, who evokes them so vividly in “Journey into Summer,” the second volume in his Pulitzer-winning “Seasons” series of journeys across America. So the more we read, the more writers talk to each other – even when there is no evidence they were acquainted.

Mostly, reading May, I am rooting for her still, although she died 25 years ago. I want her to feel some of the equanimity she had in “At Seventy,” when she “look[ed] forward with joy to the years ahead and especially to the surprises that any day may bring.” By the end of that book she has met another would-be lover and is writing poems again, which would be collected in “Letters from Maine” the same year “At Seventy” was published. This is from the title poem:

“Read between the lines./Then meet me in the silence if you can,/The long silence of winter when I shall/Make poems out of nothing, out of loss,/And at times hear your healing laughter.”

And this is from the last poem in the collection, “This Image is a Garden”:

“This self has lately come to solitude/Who long demanded love as source and prime./Now the wild garden and the ragged wood,/And the uncharted winter’s fallow time/Become the source and the true reservoir:/Look for my love in the autumn flower.”

The more miserable Sarton was, the more unrequited her love for the new woman (a fan, a stranger), the better her poetry. The lesson Sarton had to learn, over and over again, was to make her own inspiration, as Emerson said.

The next decade was a trial, both emotionally and physically. As her powers waned, Sarton resorted to speaking her journal into a tape recorder to be transcribed later. She was in pain virtually every day and though she pressed her doctors for answers – surely May Sarton was not a passive patient – they paid little attention as she lost 50 pounds and spent every day in agony. She died on July 16, 1995. The breast cancer that had first struck her in 1979 had metastasized.

When she agreed to be interviewed by Margot Peters for a biography, she did so only on the condition it be released after her death. Dipping back into the biography, published in 1997, I can see why. Peters clearly detested her. There’s plenty of evidence that May was a difficult, even manic person, that she used people, that she was self-absorbed. But Peters concludes that May mistook knowing great people for greatness, which seems unnecessarily harsh. In the last paragraph of the biography, she flat-out declares that May Sarton “will never be considered a great writer.”

Perhaps not. But she was a good one, and her poetry, novel and journals touched many people and encouraged them to think more deeply about the world. I think it would please her to know in this time of isolation that the world she wrote about so evocatively at Wild Knoll can still provide so much succor for readers, even the second time around.

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