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Authors: May Sarton

After the Stroke





After the Stroke

A Journal

May Sarton

For Edythe Haddaway

Nancy Hartley

Janice Oberacker

who saw me through


Until now I have made it a point of honor to add nothing to the daily notations in my journals, and have only revised occasionally for style or to eliminate repetitions. But I was so ill during the writing of the first half of this journal that it became mandatory to enrich it here and there. Bracketed material was written after the given date.

Wednesday, April 9, 1986

It may prove impossible because my head feels so queer and the smallest effort, mental or physical, exhausts, but I feel so deprived of my
being unable to write, cut off since early January from all that I mean about my life, that I think I must try to write a few lines every day.

It is a way of being self-supporting. I long for advice from someone like Larry LeShan who is himself recovering from a severe heart attack with many days in intensive care, yet has had the kindness to phone three times, the blessed man. He says I have no surface energy because reserve energy has to be built back first and that makes sense.

Meanwhile I lie around most of the afternoon, am in bed by eight, and there in my bed alone the past rises like a tide, over and over, to swamp me with memories I cannot handle. I am as fragile and naked as a newborn babe.

[I am too vulnerable to all the losses and often the pain connected with personal relationships. I have had too many lives, have attached myself to so many people over the fifty years since I was twenty-five and began my real life after my theater company failed in 1934. It is hard to imagine being able to say “fifty years ago,” but during those fifty years I have lived hard and to the limits of my capacity as a human being and as a writer. So it is a huge bundle of feelings and thoughts that ride on those tides when I lie awake at night. My mother dies again, and again I have to face that I did not have the courage to sit with her, which is what she needed. Perhaps I wrote
A Reckoning
partly to help readers do what I could not do … and people write me that it did help.

Then I come back often to Santa Fe where I met Judy on my second visit there when we were paying guests in the same house … what a piece of luck that proved to be! Our joining together, our living together in Cambridge was the good end of a long struggle and doubt on her part as to whether she wanted to accept me as a lover and friend. Judy had kept her personal life entirely apart from her professional life as a distinguished professor of English at Simmons College; she hesitated to be pinned down perhaps in the minds of her associates. She was not entirely prepared for the intensity of feeling on her side as well as mine. She was then forty-five and had had no intimate relationship before. And she had suffered from serious depression which she shared with no one until I came along, and even then in all the years we lived together I did not always know when she was in the valley of the shadow. Judy was as inverted and secretive as I am open and indiscreet. What drew us together was mysterious, as true love always is.

Basil de Selincourt was often in my thoughts, the first major critic to recognize my poems, and later a true friend. He looked like a hawk and could be quite brutal. But he read my poems with complete attention all through the years, and wrote his queries to me, and those letters with mine to him are now at the Berg collection with so much else, my correspondence with S. S. Koteliansky for one. It has made me aware that it is men not women who have held my work in high regard, with the one great exception of Carol Heilbrun who came into my life after I was forty-five.

What I see when I think of Basil is his garden in Kingham where he planted hundreds of shirley poppies in a long raised bed, and so made it imperative that I sow some in every garden I have had. I think of his slow walk, the gardener's walk, never hurrying.

And now I go back to find his review in the
(London) of April 2, 1939, for it was prescient and at the same time and even till now the best present I have ever been given as a poet. Here are two excerpts:

If her verses deserve notice, it is because the intense experience which underlies and unifies them has engendered an uncompromising determination to forge and refine the tool for its expression, a tool which needed to be, and indeed already is, deep-searching to the point of ruthlessness, and very delicate.

And further on:

Anyhow, in work like Miss Sarton's—she invokes for it herself the analogy of the spire—“the living spine, the soaring tension”—one claims to know the why of everything, since the more familiar it grows, the more aware one is of its unity of purpose, the more one feels in every line the solemn dedication in which all originated: a kind of dedication peculiarly germane to the poetic outlook in our time. For it grounds the ultimate, creative personality on an ultimate renunciation, on an achieved independence, an impassioned solitariness. Nationalism in poetry is dead. A poet's mind must comprehend all thoughts that visit it, and thoughts pass everywhere today. The poet's voice today becomes the voice of universal reason, and himself a citizen of the world. To be the world's he must first stand alone, must be dead to the world, a spiritual centre, radiating love.

Having been given that at twenty-seven had to sustain me through years of damaging reviews. And of course it did.

But the disturbing, the unresolved memories that flood me have to do, of course, with love affairs. The fascinating but sometimes deadly Muses who seem to have brought me poetry and rage and grief in almost equal measure. Is it perhaps that I have been a bad lover, but a good friend? Or simply that passionate love at its most romantic and demanding has already the seeds of death in it, the fresh leaves will inevitably fall in time? At best it changes and grows into friendship as I am experiencing now in a kind of epiphany with Juliette Huxley through letters.

When I get overwhelmed by the past I try to force memory back to rest in landscapes, in places such as the Dordogne river in France which Judy and I and two English friends explored just after World War II before it had become fashionable. We were able to see Lascaux, the prehistoric paintings so fresh they looked as though Picasso might have painted them the day before. Now the government has had to close those caves to preserve them, and tourists see an imitation, a reproduction. The region of the Dordogne resembles the landscapes behind Renaissance paintings. It is rich and gentle and around every turn of the river brings into view another small magical castle as in a fairy tale.

All of this and so much more—as they say on television—is contained in one person, dreaming it all like a dream and pursued by it sometimes like an inescapable nightmare. No life as rich can ever be perfectly resolved … it can be done only in a poem or two, only through a work of art. It is too complex, too terrible, too astonishing and so the wave of memory dashes itself against rocks.]

I have been rather smug perhaps about solitude versus loneliness—“loneliness is the poverty of self, solitude the richness of self.” Now I am frightfully lonely because I am
my self. I can't see a friend for over a half hour without feeling as though my mind were draining away like air rushing from a balloon. So having someone here would not work.

Nancy is a great help. She comes now every day, keeps the bird feeders filled, and works away next door, a beneficent presence, who makes no demands.

Ever since the stroke I often repeat a short poem of Robert Louis Stevenson's which Agnes Hocking taught us at Shady Hill. I learned it when I was eight or nine and did not really understand it. Now I say it at least once a day, and it helps, though it is
a great poem at all:

If I have faltered more or less

In my great task of happiness:

If I have moved among my race

And shown no glorious morning face;

If beams from happy human eyes

Have moved me not; if morning skies,

Books, and my food, and summer rain

Knocked on my sullen heart in vain,—

Lord, Thy most pointed pleasure take,

And stab my spirit broad awake …

Thursday, April 10

If I have learned something in these months of not being well it may be to live moment by moment—listening to the tree frogs all night for I couldn't sleep, waking late to the insistent coos of the wood pigeons—and at this moment the hush-hushing of the ocean. Being alive as far as I am able to the

But I think it is necessary before coming back to the present to adumbrate briefly where I am coming

First an autumn of poetry readings from September through early December—I was riding a wave. And even if it was a bit too much for me, I have no regrets. Would I have missed the great audience at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., (sold out months in advance) or across the continent the theater full in San Francisco? Or seeing Moscow, Idaho, in November, when the land lay below a small plane in huge fertile folds, rich black earth—like the body of a mythical goddess—so feminine and restorative an earth, I had tears in my eyes? Would I have missed all that?

[But between readings while I was at home in November, Bramble tried to eat but I realized after a few days that she must have a bad tooth, perhaps an abscess; Nancy and I took her to Dr. Beekman, our vet here in York, an extremely adept and humane man especially where a cat is concerned. I was able to bring her home after a few days, but Dr. Beekman warned me that he had had to take some bone as well as a tooth and the biopsy still to come might, he feared, show cancer of the bone. Her left eye was almost closed.

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