A Pillow From A Poet: May Sarton

A Captivating Purchase

African violets bounce and weave in a box as a woman carries them down the stairs from an antiquarian shop.

It’s lunchtime. My stroll along the brick walkways of Portland ends at F.O. Bailey in the Old Port. It never sold anything living, at least to my knowledge. I worked in the area at the time and frequented the place, imagining history and ownership, enjoying the attractions that thrive on ancestry.

I enter, immediately struck by the countless visitors milling about along aisles, carrying small items and gesturing, faces reflecting both fascination and delight.

No signs, or any indication as to what’s going on. Finally, I ask and get my answer.

“May Sarton. A Maine poet who passed away recently. These are her things up for sale.”

A poet’s personal belongings to be purchased?

Well, that sure took a moment to sink in. As a writer, my reading of poetry is shamefully rare. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and William Carlos Williams are the two who come to mind, but that’s usually it. Right then, I knew I needed educating, and what better place to get to know a literary figure than with the personal possessions left behind?

I start my exploratory wanderings, looking over what May might have kept on her shelves, windowsills, closets or in drawers throughout her home. I see plants, scarves, books and more books, linens and tchotchkes. The usually somber shop is hosting the festivity of a street fair, and it shows in every reflection and dangling tag.                

Just being around her possessions, glancing through her writings and the privilege of purchasing a couple of items prompted a renewed, creative vigor as I sat down at my desk that evening. I had placed a pillow of hers close by. Soft to the touch and about eight inches in diameter, it was striking with its two green and black stripes encircling a center rosette. Looking closely at the stitchery, I remember noticing short strands of fur. She was fond of cats, so it made that day’s acquisition much more genuine and precious. Coincidentally, I found out later the book I purchased mentioned the very same pillow.

As I held it, I thought about what I had discovered about her, very reluctant to go back to my writing. Instead, my imaginings carried me to her, awaiting my visit, very much alive.

“I love your house,” I whisper as I enter. The walk up from the beach has ended in flowers, with the promise there would be more to take my breath away. There is a stillness except for the sound of waves and a soft meow from the four-legged angel at my feet.

“Hello, there,” I say. May smiles at my attention to the cat. Uncertain of how she would receive me, I smile in return. As I look to the grassy field to my right, I see a house, solitary in the distance. It, too, was sun-bathed and flowery.

What sort of home would a poet have? I picture texture in abundance and a fragrance that changes with every room. Intermittent light is as conversational as the silence. All in the right colors, patterns serene in their own melody. Couch cushions are dimpled from the comfortable chats and side tables doilied, topped with books and magazines. Wooden floorboards lay in line with scatter rugs like islands and more books are docked and stacked along the wainscoting.

Treasures abound. They have long gone unnoticed but are part of the necessary tableau.

She offers me a place to sit and asks if I would like a cup of tea. Entranced, I nod. She promises to return as she walks inside. I look beyond the panes at a sight only heaven could host, the tinkling sounds of silverware on saucers reaches my ears as a cabinet closes. Suddenly, my mind goes completely blank as I consider the prospect of our upcoming conversation. I am at a loss for words; I cannot even imagine one syllable to come. The comfort of my visit and tranquility of joy has turned into a lion’s roar enough to frighten me until she returns with the steaming cups, cream and sugar, and a smile matched only by a dish of something round.

“Feel free to put a throw over yourself, the breeze from the water can be chilling,” she suggests.  A soft quilt finds itself around my legs and over my lap. It is her way of extending a comforting reassurance.

The tea is perfect, a blend steeped to a richness that toasts such moments. I compliment her on it. She encourages me to try some homemade biscuits, warm and ready to be awakened from their folds. My pillow sits with others on a divan that embraces her. I take in what she is wearing. With old-school casualness, she sports a blue cardigan the color of the sea and gray dress slacks.  Her hair is a silvery white, chronological dignity in every strand.  Her eyes are alert to what I am seeing.  She continues to smile, more enigmatic now.

Our conversation mingles with the sunlight and the occasional call of a seabird. There’s no doubt I’m in the presence of extraordinary talent, yet someone who is not afraid to reveal her humanity. We concurred there are times in our daily lives that are anything but poetic and no matter how much magic we weave into those moments, they can be stark and sometimes immune to creative whimsy.

We continue our exchange as she successfully puts me more at ease. The tea is as warming as her words, simple sips making me as content as the cat who has approached her with purrs and affection. After a pat and murmurs, she reaches down. Now placed next to her, it’s obvious May loves her fur person, and the feeling is mutual. As I gaze upon the creature who is looking at her adoringly, I see myself falling under a similar spell.

She smiles and extends the round pillow to me, suggesting that I tuck it alongside for added comfort. I take it, pat it into place, then change my mind. I would rather hold it close, a part of her pressed against me, my heart, and a simmering hope as I return to my writing and those words abandoned during a most companionable reverie.

Ms. Sarton was born in Belgium in 1912. Finding refuge and inspiration at her beach house in York, Maine, she passed away in the summer of 1995.

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