May Sarton

The prolific author of many novels and of an especially popular and beloved series of memoirs, May Sarton (1912-1995) considered herself a writer of poetry first and lamented its lukewarm critical reputation. A meticulous technician, she wrote mostly in rhyme and meter and even wrote a poem-prayer asking God, the austere one, to give her poetry “strict form.” The prayer was surely answered; Sarton lived and wrote into her eighties, seldom straying from a strict formalism that, to my ear, sometimes seems stilted. Nevertheless, there is much to admire in her body of work which draws on a wonderful range of subjects and emotional tenors.


Come out of the dark earth
Here where the minerals
Glow in their stone cells
Deeper than seed or birth.

Come under the strong wave
Here where the tug goes
As the tide turns and flows
Below that architrave.

Come into the pure air
Above all heaviness
Of storm and cloud to this
Light-possessed atmosphere.

Come into, out of, under
The earth, the wave, the air.
Love, touch us everywhere
With primeval candor.


They were intense people, given to migraine,
Outbursts of arrogance, self-pity, or wild joy,
Affected by the weather like a weather vane,
Hungry for glory, exhausted by each day,
Humble at night and filled with self-distrust.
Time burned their heels. They ran because they must—

Sparkled, spilled over in the stress of living.
Oh, they were fickle, fluid, sometimes cruel,
Who still imagined they were always giving;
And the mind burned experience like fuel,
So they were sovereign losers, clumsy winners,
And read the saints, and knew themselves as sinners.

Wild blood subdued, it was pure form they blest.
Their sunlit landscapes were painted across pain.
They dreamed of peaceful gardens and of rest—
And now their joys, their joys alone remain.
Transparent, smiling, like calm gods to us,
Their names are Mozart, Rilke—Proteus.

Eine Kleine Snailmusik The snail watchers are interested in snails from all angles . . . At the moment they are investigating the snail’s reaction to music. “We have played to them on the harp in the garden, in the country on the pipe,” said Mr. Heaton, “and we have taken them into the house and played to them on the piano.”
—The London Star

What soothes the angry snail?
What’s music to his horn?
For the “Sonata Appassionata,”
He shows scorn,
And Handel
Makes the frail snail
While Prokofieff
Gets no laugh,
And Tchaikovsky, I fear,
No tear.
Piano, pipe, and harp,
Dulcet or shrill,
Flat or sharp,
Indoors or in the garden,
Are willy-nilly
To the reserved, slow,
who prefers to live

We Sat Smoking at a Table …

We sat smoking at a table by the river
And then suddenly in the silence someone said,
“Look at the sunlight on the apple tree there shiver:
I shall remember that long after I am dead.”
Together we all turned to see how the tree shook,
How it sparkled and seemed spun out of green and gold,
And we thought that hour, that light and our long mutual look
Might warm us each someday when we were cold.

And I thought of your face that sweeps over me like light,
Like the sun on the apple making a lovely show,
So one seeing it marveled the other night,
Turned to me saying, “What is it in your heart? You glow.”—
Not guessing that on my face he saw the singular
Reflection of your grace like fire on snow—
And loved you there.

Charleston Plantations

You cannot see them from the road: go far and deep,
Down the long avenues where mosses cover up the leaves,
Across the empty terraced lawns neglected and asleep,
To the still place where no dog barks and no dove grieves,
And a black mirror gives you back your face too white
In pools dyed jet by cypress roots: go deep and far,
Deep into time, far into crumbling spaces and half-light
To where they stand, our Egypt and our Nineveh.
Deep in a deathly stillness stand the planters’ houses.

The garlands and the little foxes’ faces carved
Upon the mantels look on empty walls and water-stains
And the stairs tremble though so elegantly curved
(Outside are waiting the bright creeping vines),
And as your foot falls in the silences, you guess
Decay has been arrested for a moment in the wall,
But the gray plumes upon the trees in deathly loveliness
Will stir when you have passed, and somewhere a stone fall.
Deep in a deathly stillness stand the planters’ houses.

There is no rice now and the world that sprang from it
Like an azalea, brilliant from the swamps, has crumbled.
A single century, it is embalmed as Egypt.
A single century, and all that elegance was humbled—
While we who fired that world and watched it burn
Come every spring to whisper near the tomb,
To stare, a little shaken, where the mosses mourn
And the azaleas and magnolias have not ceased to bloom.
Deep in a deathly stillness stand the planters’ houses.

From The Invocation to Kali

There are times when
I think only of killing
The voracious animal
who is my perpetual shame,

The violent one
Whose raging demands
Break down peace and shelter
Like a peacock’s scream.

There are times when
I think only of how to do away
With this brute power
That cannot be tamed.

I am the cage where poetry
Paces and roars. The beast
Is the god. How murder the god?
How live with the terrible god?


The Kingdom of Kali

Anguish is always there, lurking at night,
Wakes us like a scourge, the creeping sweat
As rage is remembered, self-inflicted blight.
What is it in us we have not mastered yet?

What Hell have we made of the subtle weaving
Of nerve with brain, that all centers tear?
We live in a dark complex of rage and grieving.
The machine grates, grates, whatever we are.

The kingdom of Kali is within us deep.
The built-in destroyer, the savage goddess,
Wakes in the dark and takes away our sleep.
She moves through the blood to poison gentleness.

She keeps us from being what we long to be;
Tenderness withers under her iron laws.
We may hold her like a lunatic, but it is she
Held down, who bloodies with her claws.

How then to set her free or come to terms
With the volcano itself, the fierce power
Erupting injuries, shrieking alarms?
Kali among her skulls must have her hour.

It is time for the invocation, to atone
For what we fear most and have not dared to face:
Kali, the destroyer, cannot be overthrown;
We must stay, open-eyed, in the terrible place.

Every creation is born out of the dark.
Every birth is bloody. Something gets torn.
Kali is there to do her sovereign work
Or else the living child will be stillborn.

She cannot be cast out (she is here for good)
Nor battled to the end. Who wins that war?
She cannot be forgotten, jailed, or killed.
Heaven must still be balanced against her.

Out of destruction she comes to wrest
The juice from the cactus its harsh spine,
And until she, the destroyer, has been blest,
There will be no child, no flower, and no wine.


It is time for the invocation:

Kali, be with us.
Violence, destruction, receive our homage.
Help us to bring darkness into the light,
To lift out the pain, the anger,
Where it can be seen for what it is—
The balance-wheel for our vulnerable, aching love.
Put the wild hunger where it belongs,
Within the act of creation,
Crude power that forges a balance
Between hate and love.

Help us to be the always hopeful
Gardeners of the spirit
Who know that without darkness
Nothing comes to birth
As without light
Nothing flowers.

Bear the roots in mind,
You, the dark one, Kali,
Awesome power.

Nostalgia for India

In the clean, anodyne
Hotel room in Athens,
I am suddenly homesick for
The Indian night
And my dark cell
In Orissa
Where I was visited
By a white lizard
With emerald eyes,
By an articulate frog,
And sometimes, very late,
By a wandering shrew.
The lizard chittered
And danced;
The shrew ran compulsively
Along the wall;
The frog,
When I lifted him up,
Gave a single heart-rending cry.
In my unmysterious
White room,
I miss the chittering,
The cry of despair,
The silent, lunatic trot—
It is too sane here for words.

Prayer before Work

Great one, austere,
By whose intent the distant star
Holds its course clear,
Now make this spirit soar—
Give it that ease.

Out of the absolute
Abstracted grief, comfortless, mute,
Sound the clear note,
Pure, piercing as the flute:
Give it precision.

Austere, great one,
By whose grace the inalterable song
May still be wrested from
The corrupt lung:
Give it strict form.

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