menu Language Is A Virus

Pages from a Journal by May Sarton

Tuesday, 7 May 1991

After a wild miserable wind and rain storm yesterday that was so strong that, when I went out to get the feeder, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to open the door so I could get back ina very frightening moment. And of course misery to see the daffodils beaten down, every thing at its height. However I think we did need the rain.

Yesterday was a day of triumph and great joy because Connie Hunting sent me the essay that she used in her talk on my poetry at the celebration of my seventy-ninth birthday at Westbrook College on May second.1 It was so moving to me to see someone get at the center of what my poetry is all about, which has been neglected, really, for many years. She starts out by quoting part of a poem of mine: "These are not hours of fire but years of praise,/The glass full to the brim, completely full,/But held in balance so no drop can spill" ("Because What I Want Most Is Permanence," The Land of Silence, 1954). And she says:

The primary source of May Sarton's poetic power is the lyric impulse. Deep, authentic, never-failing, it has continued for sixty years to feed the river of her poetry, which is, above all, a poetry of praise.

The lyric impulse arises not from ordinary, everyday emotions, which play like rainbows over the surface of the pool of being, but from the wellspring of pure, or essential, emotion which exists in the most profound depths of our spirit. It is the vibration of these depths that make for lyric poetry and the musicality of its expression. Orpheus's lyre is implicit in the poetry named for it.

I rested on this as on the arrival after a long journey or as somebody who has completed the marathon and is being greeted at the end. Of course it brought back immediately Rilke and his marvelous poem about the poet and what the poet is all about. It was translated in this case by Leishman and it is not the best translation but I don't have the original so I'll make this do:

Oh, tell us, poet, what you do?
I praise.
But those dark, deadly, devastating ways,
how do you bear them, suffer them?
I praise.
And then the Nameless, beyond guess or gaze,
how can you call it, conjure it?
I praise.
And whence your right, in every kind of maze,
in every mask, to remain true?
I praise.
And that the mildest and the wildest ways
know you like star and storm?
Because I praise.2

I used to read that poem ["For Leonie Zacharias"] very often when I was reading at colleges, but I haven't gone back to it for some time. The whole gist of what Connie says is that my work springs from praise.

Thursday, 9 May 1991

Again a magnificent day. I hope Nancy and I can put in the lobelias along the little terrace border. The great good news is that I put in eight miniature rosesEdythe's yearly present for my birthday, and so welcomeand they are on the inside little border of the terrace. The lobelias are on the edge. I did it quietly, although it had been a very driven day for various reasons and I wondered whether I possibly had the energy. I said to myself to maybe put two of them in, but as soon as I got the tools together, and water, and had on my work clothes and went out there and lay down on the groundbecause that's the only way I can plant because I don't stoopsuddenly time opened up and I was completely at peace and happy. It's the first time I've been able to do a real piece of gardening in more than a year. It was just marvelous!

It was not all a bad day because Connie Lloyd, Judy's sister who is now eighty-nine; Judy's nephew and his wife, Tim and Phyllis, who are really my family, those three, came to say hello. They wanted to tell me about the Westbrook occasion which they greatly enjoyed. I wanted to show them the video made in Gainesville of "Creativity in the Upward Years." We did laugh, Connie and I, and all of us, about the "upward years."

Before that I knew that I would have to get some advice from an electrician, so Susan can experiment with the juicer that Dr. Khanjani has been so anxious that I have. I'm not eager to do it, and I think Susan is going to have to run it when she's here for the summer. But I thought I'd better get it ready, so I called Bruce Woods. This is one of the kindest and dearest of the workmen who work around here. Jim Cote, who took care of the storm windows, was the other one whom I loved so much, but I think whoever does it now is equally nice.

Anyway, Bruce camemuch earlier than he saidat ten. The Warrens and Connie were coming at eleven. I thought I had an hour to do a thousand things at once; everything has piled up. I write eight or nine thank-you notes a day, but it's only a little bit of what has to be done still. I'm also packing books [Sarton Selected, ed. Bradford D. Daziel. Norton, 1991] to send friends. Nancy offered to do this but she is finishing the transcription of the dictated journal and this is important. I must do the preface very soon and choose the photographs.

So everything drives me just a little too hard these days. In a funny way what drives me is the spring, the fleeting spring. Because of the enormous rain we had, a lot of the daffodils have blown down, though not as many as I'd feared. But the truth is that their peak has passed now. We'll have them for another week and then they'll be gone. It seems quite unbearable but of course that's what spring isthe letting go. The waiting and waiting and waiting, and then the letting go.

I wanted to go back to Tuesday because I didn't do the journal. I was too busy and went to Dr. Khanjani as well. It began with a terrible thunderous heartbeat when I heard the bell of the rubbish-collecting truck at seven. It used to come at seven-thirty but I missed the announcement that it would be at seven from now on. So I dashed out of bed, threw on a wrapper and ran out. Fortunately the man in the truck was still waiting. He had his name, Dave, on his shirt, so I thanked him very warmly. He said, "I'll bring it out for you," and I showed him how to lift the garage door. He has offered to get the rubbish there so we won't have to drag it out. This is a tremendous eventand that includes the recycling bin that we begin to use quite soon.

After that the day jogged along too fast. I went to Dr. Khanjani and this always makes for a little hurry, I'm sorry to say, but I thought about the kindness of Dave and the kindness of Bruce and realized that York is a very munificent town, at least from the point of view of the people who work here: the carpenters, the rubbish collectors. How kind they are! And also the UPS people, who offer to place something heavy for me in a different room if that's what I want and do it so cheerfully.

Now I must have a bath, I must get dressed and I must make my bed because Eleanor comes today. It and the weekend are the times I have to make my bed and I must admit I mind it.

Friday, 10 May 1991
Yesterday I'm afraid I had to pay for the exhilaration of planting ten miniature roses the afternoon beforein a state of real bliss, I must say. That wonderful peace that it isto have one's hand in the earth and not to hurry. But otherwise my life is very driven these days, in great part because of seeing the doctor twice a week, because of anticipating it and being very tired often afterwards. It really takes the day. Then the other thing is the constant having to shop for food, for fish. I do usually get the fish near Doctor Khanjani's luckily. But I'm distressed because I get so little done at my desk and I do have the preface to the journal still to do.

Yesterday was not a good day. I saw Dr. Khanjani at eleven-thirty and before that Nancy and I had put in four flats of lobelias. That's the thing, I guess, that was a little too much for me. Then in the afternoon I felt really exhausted. I had my hair done and came back but couldn't really rest.

Now, this morning, another disaster. I put the thermostat up to a little over 70℉ at five because the air was quite chilly and I wasn't feeling well. I felt rather nauseated and queer. The heat went right up to 80℉ so when I came down at six it seemed terribly hot, and I wondered if I had a fever. I put the thermostat down to 60℉ but the heat didn't die down so I finally turned it off at the source, the button at the head of the cellar stairs. Then I called Goodwin Oil and they will come this afternoon.

So once more I don't get my rest. What really finished me off yesterday was I suddenly realized they'd said rain and I'd better pick flowers for Susan's room or they might be all beaten down or I might not be able to pick them. I really feel very exhausted and a little frightened by it. There's no way to take the pressure right now. I just have to try to be wise and do a little at a time and not let it get to me that there are perhaps a hundred letters I should answer right away.

Saturday, 11 May 1991

Susan is here and the house is alive again in a real way with her and Cybèle [miniature white poodle]. Pierrot [Sarton's Himalayan cat] is very excited. He spends a great deal of time watching the door behind which Cybèle is. But at the moment, perfect peace.

Susan and I did quite a big piece of gardening, putting in the perennials including a charming dwarf astera wonderful purple-blueand some Shasta daisies, and one globe thistle because they all died. That's one thing that I really did lose this winter. The astilbe is doing very well and I thought I'd lost that. Susan put in a beautiful white columbine that was part of what Nancy and I boughther birthday present to me. Now I have a second birthday present in someone who will plant it.

Yesterday was a tiring day but also a very satisfactory one. Karen Koslowski, who is so kind, came and took me on a shopping project to get in the things that I needed for the weekend. There were some things that I had run out of. The holistic diet is very demanding as far as shopping is concerned. So I got apricots and stewed them up in the afternoon, got broccoli that I cooked for Susan and me to have, and flounder, and a wonderful halibut which had just come in. We waited while they cut it for us.

It's going to be a real treat tonight with an artichoke! They were on sale when Nancy and I stopped by the Golden Harvest the other day when we were getting the plants. They really do look lovely. So this will be quite a feast tonight. I also baked apples yesterday. So it's clear that I really am much better, although yesterday I had an awful lot of pain, which was too bad. The energy is there until I'm really knocked down by the pain.

Nevertheless, a year ago I wasn't able to garden at all. So to be able to put my hands in the earth to digeven thought I'm very weak and it seems like a tremendous task to dig even a small holeis lifegiving. It's almost as if the earth were nourishing me at the moment. I could feel it as if it were food.

Susan looks beautiful. We're going to try the vegetable juicer which that wonderful electrician, Bruce Woods, set up for me the other day.

Now there is a certain amount of pressure about the journal getting done. Yesterday I read and corrected twenty pagesit's now 330 pages. Tomorrow I'll try to do another twenty so that I'm caught up to where Nancy is. But there is still the enormously important selection of the photographs. I'm looking forward to that. I think I must call Eric and find out what the deadline would be.

"Oh you kitten! What a tail!"

I was talking to the cat then because he has got a burr on his tail. He's lying beside me with a magnificent bunch of daffodils and narcissi in front of me on a little tableand lilies of the valley from Susan's garden beside them.

Connie Lloyd was so funny when she came with the Warrens to see the video of me. She wanted so much to see the cat and I knew he was up here. He sleeps most of the day in a straight chair in my bedroom or on my bed. When she came down I asked her if she'd seen him. She said, "Well, I couldn't believe there was a living animal, there are so many stuffed ones, but then he opened his eyes and there was the living animal!" But of course he jumped down right away. I do have an almost life-sized lamb, and a smaller one, a magnificent duck and a gosling, and a donkey besides my living Pierrot. So it is quite a zooas Connie said.

This has been an absolutely perfect weekend with Susan. Perfect weather, the daffodils are at their last great glory. By tomorrow many of them will have shriveled I'm afraid. It's hardthe fleeting moment when, suddenly, you know they're on their way and nothing can hold them back. They've lasted better than any year I can remember and been more glorious. Susan and I lived in perfect accord and peace for the two daysenjoying life to the full. It was, of course, partly because I am feeling better. Then Susan always manages to do some wonderful deed in the houseclearing out a cupboard this time which had bottles and glasses in it, all mixed up. Now there is order and peace. This order and peace is inspiring me to try to tidy up my own clothing. Because I've lost so much weight, there's an enormous amount that has to be given away and collected and sorted out. And now, because I feel better, I cannot simply think about this, but actually begin to do things, be active.

The great event of the last two days, besides Susan's presence here, was a marvelous quotation by one of the nuns at the Carmelite Monastery in Indianapolis. Sister Betty was in retreat when I stayed there so I didn't meet her but she had the kindness to copy out, from a book by Piero Ferrucci, called Inevitable Grace [Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1990], something which goes right to the state of myself, my health and my life in a marvelous way. The beginning of the quotation from Inevitable Grace is, "Empathy, however, is no solitary event. On the contrary, it is that which permits artists to feel and express the most concealed needs, pains and dreams of a whole society." The aim of the poet, says Pablo Neruda, is to embody hope for the people, to be one leaf in the great tree of humanity." Then Ferrucci quotes from Neruda: "My reward is the momentous occasion when, from the depths of a [?]Lota coal mine, a man came up out of the tunnel into the full sunlight and the fiery nitrate field as if rising out of hell, his face disfigured by his work, his eyes inflamed by the dust and, stretching his rough hand out to me, a hand whose callouses and lines traced the map of the pampas. He said to me, his eyes shining, 'I have known you for a long time, my brother!' That is the laurel crown of my poetry, that opening in the bleak pampas from which a worker emerges, who has been told often by the wind in the night and the stars of Chile: you're not alone, there's a poet whose thoughts are with you in your suffering." And back to Ferrucci: "Empathy then is an expansion of consciousness. Through this faculty we are able to become one with trees and ants and elephants, birds, rivers and seas, children and old people, men and women, suffering and joyful people, rainbows and galaxies. Thus we become able to breathe and live in other beings or to find them within ourselves, as in a living microcosm in the most unlikely face, in the strangest of situations, in the remotest places, we discover ourselves and once we reach this point there need never again be the feeling that we are strangers in a strange land." It's a good Sunday sermon, isn't it?

Tuesday, 14 May 1991

It's almost incredible to have another magnificent May day. We're being rewarded for all the bad weather we had in April. And now in the great sequence the ornamental apples are out on the terrace and right where I see them from my chaise lounge here. The marsh marigolds have gone. This is the thing: as one thing goes, another thing comes. You have to keep running to keep up with the spring!

Yesterday I had the great joy of watering with the hose. In the morning I had gotten anxious, there had been so much wind and it's been very hot at the same time. So some of the plants, the perennials that Susan and I just planted, really needed water. I watered the little roses by hand. So the pleasure of turning on the hose was pleasure late in the afternoon yesterday, after an otherwise jagged, difficult day in which I got too tired. But things are popping in the garden, but I did manage to do a rough preface for the seventy-nine journal.

An enormous number of fan letters still come in; this morning there were four or five, interestingly enough, from women of very different ages: one sixteen-year-old young woman who says, like me, she has always liked older people; one from a woman in her fifties and another from a woman in her seventies. It's very thrilling to feel this span and also that the work has been sustaining to such different kinds of people. This is reason for great rejoicing, I must say, but my desk remains a kind of misery. It's in such disorder. I did manage to pack a few of the new books to send off and to write maybe four or five notes and that's the day.

Yesterday I had two doctors to see, Dr. Petrovich and Dr. Khanjani. Dr. P. was very pleased with me and said he hadn't seen such a smile for a long timesuch a smile of mine, I mean. So that was good. Then Dr. K. rejoiced because I was weighed at Dr. P.'s and I've gained three pounds! This I've been waiting to hear, and it is very good news. But the X-ray of the spine that they took last week did show a shadow which might not be very good news and I may have to have a CAT scan. So that overshadowed the day at the end.

I went to bed very tired and then Pierrot, who really enraged me, didn't come in at 12:00 (I think I'd gone down three times). So then I took my sleeping pill and of course didn't wake up until half past two when he came in, telling me in no uncertain terms that he had waited much too long. He just gave a kind of growly, miserable meow which he repeated for a long time. Then he leapt on the bed and was tremendously affectionate, pushing his nose against my face and purring very loudly. He's now listening carefully to everything I say and just rolled over on the straight chair where he likes to sleep in the morning.

Thursday, 16 May 1991

I saw Dr. Khanjani at 9:30 this morningthe earliest I've ever been. In some ways this is a good time, although next week it will be Monday and Thursday at three. I'm really leading two lives and that may be why I have a sense of rather too great pressure right now. The day seems to fly out of my grasp like a bird that I can't catch. I came back after just getting some carrots because Nadine can use the juicer and make me carrot juice tomorrow. Just that and having my hair done, it was eleven. I was very tired and really wanted my lunch but I made myself go upstairs and try to find photographs for the journal. That is the big job right nowto get it done. When I called Eric yesterday he said that [if I gave photographs] by the 15th of June it would be possible to bring out [the journal] by my birthday. It's a lot of work and I didn't findI looked for almost an hourthe photograph I'd hope to find of Pierrot sitting on the wall like a mage as he does so often and which I would like to have appear rather early on.

Yesterday was more or less consumed by Jan Daniels. She's seventy-five, which I hadn't realized, so it was quite a thing to come all the way from California to see me for one hour. It turned out to be two hours and I was completely exhausted at the end but I like her. She is a marvelously good potter. I think the reason I accepted her coming, because I really don't have the strength for these visitors anymore, but the reason I was interested is because she started being a potter at fifty-nine. She's been happily married to the same man for something like forty years. She has three grown-up children whom she loves. She lives in Los Altos, California, where she makes her magnificent pots, which she is convinced help people, in much the same way that they tell me my work helps themgives them comfort. I can see how a very round, ample pot can give one comfort.

Jan Daniels' pots are open-ended, rather raggedly open-ended on purpose, but the texture is something very much like Maria's, the famous Pueblo potter. Jan Daniels only buffs her pots. They are not in any way altered from the original substance of which they are made. She doesn't use a wheel. It's all done by hand.

She was most appreciative of the house. I suppose, in a way, seeing me here, you learn a great deal about me without even talking. When I said I was very tired when she arrived because I'd already worked hard at my desk, she said, "I'll talk." I couldn't resist saying, "But listening is difficult, is tiring too; in fact, listening is much more tiring than talking for most people."

1 "A Celebration of May Sarton and Her Work on Her Seventy-Ninth Birthday," Thursday, 2 May 1991: 10:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Maine Women Writers Collection, Abplanalp Library, Westbrook College, Stevens Avenue, Portland, Maine.

2 "For Leonie Zacharias," Muzot, 20 December 1921. Rainer Maria Rilke; Poems 1906 to 1926. Translated with an introduction by J.B. Leishman. New Directions, 1957.