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Permanence and May Sarton by Deborah Straw

One of May Sarton's most haunting poems is "Because What I Want Most is Permanence." For many years, this poem was taped above my typewriter and later, my computer. As I was fortunate enough to know May Sarton for the last seven years of her life, I interpret this poem in two ways: she wanted permanence in her friendships, some of which spanned six decades, and she wanted permanence in her homes. She did not necessarily want permanence in her romantic life, and she did not always expect it in her literary life (although she wanted it, of course). The latter, I believe, she has finally achieved.

She especially wanted and instilled permanence in her two adult homes: the elderly cape in Nelson, New Hampshire, which readers know so well from her works Journal of a Solitude, Plant Dreaming Deep, As Does New Hampshire, and more, and the yellow three-story clapboard home on the coast in York, Maine, where she lived out the last years of her life and produced poetry and journals.

Although I never had the good luck to enter the first home (I didn't know her when she lived in New Hampshire), I was invited to the Maine house on many occasions. And when I attended May's memorial service in July 1995 in Nelson, I was privileged to see, for the first time, the elegant, sturdy New Hampshire cape. The house has an immense presence and grace. A few years back, this was the house of the month in the pages of Yankee magazine, for sale for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In her published journals and memoirs, Sarton (1912-1995) often wrote about her daily life in these houses—about her rigid routines: feeding the animals and watering the plants, watching the news every evening, taking her breakfast up to bed to snuggle a bit longer with Pierrot, her Himalayan cat—or with Bramble, the cat, or Tamas, the Sheltie, before him. We learn of her morning working hours, and of her afternoon hours spent answering a huge quantity of mail. We learn of Christmas rituals and of infrequent dinner parties. In Maine, she had three floors, furnished with much of her parents' Belgian furniture. Some of these dark wooden pieces had been designed by her mother, Mable Sarton. The house was full of books—her own , or friends' and acquaintances' waiting for a favorable blurb or review: books were on the stairs, on end tables, in carefully marked and arranged bookcases in several rooms. She always gave or loaned books. As a much younger friend, I was ecstatic when I could reciprocate and introduce her to a book, such as Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams, that she had not yet read. Her study, her working space, was on the third floor, where visitors seldom were invited. This room offered a wonderful view of the ocean and all the solitude she wanted. One of the most important things to Sarton in her orderly and cozy home in Maine (and also in Nelson) was her flowers— both a profusion of them in a bay window and those in her outside gardens. In the bay window were violets, gloxinia, and geraniums. Each room also had a fresh bouquet, a few of which she bought, the majority of which were sent by friends or "lovers of the work."

Into her eighties, May gardened every day in the good months (in Maine that's about three or four), until she was forced to hire a gardener. The physical labor balanced the intellectual work of writing and revising. A ritual for many of her friends, including my husband and me, was to go for lunch or cocktails in late April to see her many clusters of narcissi and daffodils. She always insisted we take a bouquet home. One of her favorite narcissi was, appropriately, "poeticus" or Pheasant's Eye. May often said, if she were in solitary confinement, she would write only poetry, not prose. Poetry represented a dialogue between her and a personal God. The York house was isolated, but not in a frightening way. Her guests never felt too far from society, if they wanted a bit of it, but the building, whose address Sarton did not give out to anyone except close friends, was off the beaten track. You followed several winding dirt roads; there were no signs of the famous writer until the very end. May liked it that way. She also kept her actual address in New Hampshire a secret, although this is a bit easier to find as the town is tiny. Only one time did a fan find her Nelson cape (I can't figure out how—unless someone in the post office or at U.P.S. gave it away) and knocked on the door. But after May wrote about the unfortunate occurrence and her angry reactions to it, in her journal, few other readers had the temerity to try to find her. She loved and needed solitude.

The eighteenth-century farmhouse on the green in Nelson is, of course, findable, if you can find Nelson. Not far from Keene, in southwestern New Hampshire, Nelson is a hilly hamlet with only half a dozen homes. It's not on most maps. When I attended the memorial service on that rainy July day, I observed a town hall, a church, no stores. Sarton's house stands next door to the church where the service was held. May Sarton is buried up "the long hill " in the old town cemetery, which you can easily find. If you see the stone phoenix sculpture (which is pictured in House by the Sea ), you will have arrived. Her ashes are buried underneath the sculpture. Although, in her last year in Nelson, she decided to live by the ocean, May discovered that the sea was not her final muse, that solitude was. She always felt that Nelson, not York, was home. "I set my mind to artful work and craft, / I set my heart on friendship, hard and fast." ("Because What I want Most is Permanence") In her two homes, May Sarton did exactly that. She wrote more than fifty books during her lifetime—from her early 20s into her 80s—only settling for not writing a book a year as she approached 80. Around her, she accumulated a large group of friends, of all ages and nationalities; she called her house, in several pieces, "This house of gathering." This intense woman who taught so many younger writers the importance of passion and of discipline also said, "No one comes to this house/ Who is not changed. / I meet no one here who does not change me " ("Gestalt at Sixty"). I am living witness to this statement. Her attitude toward permanence shines through in the themes of her writing and is echoed in the lives of her many proteges. I, for one, have become a better craftsman and friend because I knew May Sarton.