Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

[amazon template=image&asin=0393309290]

It is books like these that make me wish I were less lazy, more committed to writing. May Sarton is wonderful, as always. I need to attack her oeuvre like I have Dorothy Whipple’s, absolutely and totally consumed.

Structured in four parts, the book is set on the coast of Maine about a poet, Hilary Stevens, her relationship to a young neighbor (Mal), and her interview with two intellectuals from New York. It’s foolish to say that “Part I: Hilary” is all about the poet, when the entire work dives into her past and work and thoughts and inner monologue. But there it is, it’s where we find the aging poet, 70 years old, combating her elderly body with her youthful mind, battling to find time to sit down at her desk and work instead of meandering about with the daily chores. We also meet Mal here, the skulking college-aged student who’s taking time off to recover from his meltdown over a boy.

In the interlude, we meet the two who will interview her, Peter and Jenny, driving from the airport and gobsmacked by the scenery while they discuss the problem of woman writer, which will come up in great depth in their conversation with Hilary. “Part II: The Interview” is just that, but more, with Hilary wandering off to grapple with ancient memories that the questions have unleashed. Then the “Epilogue: Mar” ends the book, where Mar comes back to shamefacedly admit to having slept with a sailor who stole his wallet, and Hilary trying to breathe life into him without quashing his spirit.

Some quotable bits:

  • As she entertains the interviewers, she admits that when you live alone, you have to have rules (no liquor before quarter to six). When prompted, other rules are: “up at seven, some work at my desk every day, come hell or high water, no self-indulgence.”
  • She mentions that “women do not thrive in cities,” something I’m coming to terms with myself.
  • Of course she has fantastic things to say about solitude. “There is a difference between solitude and loneliness, and people who live alone come to know them both intimately… loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.”
  • On her mother’s death, she reflects on the “price of parents! All that guilt!… I see now that as long as she lived I kept fleeing to Europe, and in this sense her death was a liberation. At last I was able to come home and rest my eyes on the sea. Solitude was, for a time, an intoxication; I had been cracked open, and the source was there again.”

Journal of a Solitude

[amazon template=image&asin=0393074749]

Published in 1973 as a way of tempering the imperfections of her previous book, Plant Dreaming Deep, to show the reality of solitude. A single woman in her late fifties, struggling to find time alone to write poetry with waves upon waves of visitors washing up onto her New Hampshire home, with a garden to water and weed, with stray kittens to feed and birds to watch and raccoons/woodchucks to battle with late at night as they forage in her kitchen for cat food and bird seed. She’s also inundated with letters, requests to read manuscripts, and random visitors who pop in to ogle the famous writer.

I feel as if I have stumbled onto a secret club– learned about this book after reading Writing a Woman’s Life by Heilbrun. In this journal of solitude, Sarton mentions meeting Heilbrun, is excited that a critic is coming to visit her, a professor, finally someone paying attention! They have a lovely visit, but after “Carol” (not Carolyn) is gone, Sarton rejects some of the criticism she’s been given, she doesn’t feel the need to be the perfect beyond reproach beyond feeling woman that Heilbrun wishes for.
I love seeing cries for help from 40+ years ago that life is moving too quickly. Surely we are spinning out of control by this time?

It is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn and art or a craft. Instant success is the order of the day; “I want it now!” Machines do things very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn’t start at the first try. So the few things that we still do, such as cooking (though there are TV dinners!), knitting, gardening, anything at all that cannot be hurried, have a very particular values.

Related:

It is harder than it used to be because everything has become speeded up and overcrowded. So everything that slows us down and forced patience, everything that sets us back into the slow cycles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.

Simple and perfect:

“How does one grow up?” I asked a friend the other day. There was a slight pause; then she answered, “By thinking.”

On the loss of delight while traveling, the disappearance of “think-time”:

Travel has become more and more difficult. I armed myself in patience and before I finally got back here, I needed it. What used to be a gentle passage by train, that beautiful ride from Boston along the shore line, a good diner, a peaceful think-time, has become a matter of waiting and enduring, of carrying bags long distances, of cross taxi drivers, of battling to get a means of conveyance over the shortest distance. One arrives through the uproar of one’s anxiety and panic, exhausted at the start.

Apparently Sarton was an acquaintance of Virginia Woolf’s:

When I was young and knew Virginia Woolf slightly, I learned something that startled me– that a person may be ultrasensitive and not warm. She was intensely curious and plied one with questions, teasing, charming questions that made the young person glow at being even for a moment the object of her attention. But I did feel at times as though I were “a specimen American young poet” to be absorbed and filed away in the novelist’s store of vicarious experience.

Related, a dream she had about VW being still alive:

Many years ago I had a vivid dream after Virginia Woolf’s suicide. I dreamt that I saw her walking in the streets of a provincial town, unrecognized, unknown, and somehow guessed that she had not committed suicide at all, but had decided that she had to disappear, go under as her famous self, and start again.

Interesting to note the reaction of “ordinary women” to the movement:

(from a letter to Sarton): I am grateful to all the crazies out there in the Women’s Liberation; we need them as outrageous mythical characters to make our hostilities and dilemmas really visible. As shallow as my contact with the Women’s Liberation has been, I have really seen something new about myself this year; the old stalemated internal conflict has been thrown off balance and I am surprised to understand how much of my savage hostility is against men.

On the need to tell the truth about oneself:

My own belief is that one regards oneself, if one is a serious writer, as an instrument for experiencing. Life–all of it– flows through this instrument and is distilled through it into works of art. How one lives as a private person is intimately bound into the work. And at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition, and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity, self-doubt, extravagance of feeling, guilt, joy, the slow freeing of the self to its full capacity for action and creation, both as human being and as artist, we have to know all we can about each other and we have to be wiling to go naked.

On attention:

Simone Weil says, “Absolute attention is prayer.” And the more I have thought about this over the years, the truer it is for me… if one looks long enough at almost anything, looks with absolute attention at a flower, a stone, the bark of a tree, grass, snow, a cloud, something like a revelation takes place. Something is “given,” and perhaps that something is always a reality outside the self.

The most perfect birthday gift= a day alone:

There was no time yesterday to write of my best birthday present. Anne Woodson was to have come for lunch today, the only “free day” I shall have for some time to come. When I got back from Cambridge on WEdnesday I walked into a house full of surprises–a hanging fuchsia, two marvelous rose plants, a little bag of brownies, and a note from Anna to say that she was giving me a day’s time. (She had come on purpose while I was away.) This is the day she has given me and I have two poems simmering, so I had better get to work.