May Sarton at Nelson, NH
looking down the long hill towards Nelson Commons
This small town in south central New Hampshire was poet and novelist May Sarton's adopted home, and where she is laid to rest. I've written before about May Sarton, in appreciation of her writings. When I began to realize that this roadtrip to Maine and back was more of an arts pilgrimage than a photography trip, I also realized that I would be passing very close by Nelson, so there was every reason to stop there. Sarton had lived her last few years on the Maine coast, near York, but always planned to be buried in Nelson.
Now I walk around Nelson, thinking of Sarton and her presence here.
wild narcissus bloom
along old stone walls—
wild angels of the hills
In 1972, Sarton published her tenth volume of poems, A Durable Fire, written while living in Nelson. Late in the book is the poem "The Fear of Angels," which seems relevant to me, in contemplating the inner journey that this roadtrip has become.
The Fear of Angels
It is not what they intend,
But we are light-struck,
Blinded by their presence,
When all they want is to see us.
We have to turn away,
Cannot look at the huge, deep Unknown
That speaks through their eyes.
They strip us down to the infant gaze
Still deep in the sky,
Still rooted somewhere we cannot remember.
Angel, look away,
I cannot afford to yield the last defence,
to go back—
"Not back, but deeper,"
Said the angel, folding his wings
I think of Rilke's angels, in the Duino Elegies, which also immolate us merely because they want to stoop down to be with us. As Rilke wrote, Every angel is terrifying. How could they not be? They are the immolation of spirit, of bliss, of ecstasy. They are beings of light, and the force of the light can be blinding.
I think of the Annunciation, that story of the angel visiting the shepherds in the hills, blasting them with light, terrifying them. Who among them had ever seen such a thing? All the angel was doing was calling them, the ordinary peasants, the common folk, to come witness an extraordinary birth. But it must have been overwhelming. That's my sense of how it seemed to the shepherds, at least; and so I wrote about it in a poem, Evangelismos.
Angels spend so much time waiting for us to make up our minds, to choose, and re-choose, to keep choosing to do the right thing. We can always change our minds, to do the right thing, to do the next thing. But it is hard to let go of our preconceptions, of our expectations and demands of life—what is the last defense but our stubborn clinging to our sense of selfhood, our sense of our own rightness and willful rightness? So the angels keep waiting, asking us to go deeper. Again and again we choose, or refuse to.
wildness of flowers among
the dark bare hills
I was able to spend several hours this overcast afternoon at Nelson. I pulled into the small town Commons, recognizing some of the buildings from photos in Sarton’s published Journals: the Town Hall, the Congregational church which her house had been next to, the buildings across the square.
I went into the Nelson public library, right there on the Commons, a little tongue-tied, and just blurted out, I’m on a literary pilgrimage. The librarian was very quick to understand, as they regularly get pilgrims for Sarton at Nelson. She showed me the corner where her collected books are kept, including a box of newspaper clippings and gathered other loose papers. Then she gave me directions to the cemetery, where Sarton's ashes are laid. I decided to walk up the hill first, then come back to the library. Sarton is buried next to her neighbors and friends, the Quigleys, in the cemetery up the long hill across the Commons from the church. Sarton wrote in her late journals about being buried here, and that’s how she described her final resting place: up the long hill across from the church.
So I walked up the long hill to the cemetery, admiring the narcissus in wild bloom, strewn apparently randomly along the roadside, at the edges of the fields. The road is bordered with the handmade stone fences common to this part of New England.
The fields are full of rocks, glacial erratics, dumped there in the dirt as the glaciers scoured these old hills, making valleys and leaving behind outwash debris. Generations ago the first farmers here cleared the biggest stones from the fields, and built these fences.
The stone fences here are very handsome; sturdy and magnificent in their quiet durability. These hills are largely folded slate, old rock crunched up in the northernmost Appalachian uplifts, interfingered with rough, grainy marble. Much of the rock from upstate New York all the way to here is made from these basic rock types, weathering as flat slabs of varying thickness, that, in the riverbeds, create stair-step waterfalls with sharp-edged lips the water plunges over as it rushes down the gorges to, eventually to find the ocean. It’s a wet forested land in this mid-spring, the trees still budding out, all the flowering bushes and trees still in full bloom.
As you enter the front gates of the cemetery, turning off the road to your right as you hike up the long hill, the field of graves slopes down into a valley filled with groves of trees below you to the north.
Many of these graves are very old, the tall flat stone markers tilting as the soil creeps downhill. In the grass among the graves tiny white and deep indigo flowers were blooming; off by the east wall a crabtree flowered hot pink; in the other direction, a small forsythia was hot yellow against the green grass.
Sarton’s grave is off to the left, next to Quig’s, near the far west wall, partway downslope. Her ashes were buried here under a stone relief-carving of a phoenix rising out of stone flames. The effect is to see the soul of the person who lies here rising out of the earth, catching light, and bursting upwards into that other place, the summerland of dreams and forgiveness and passing.
It’s a lovely spot. I sat there on the ground for awhile, taking in the quiet day and the calm afternoon, despite the gnats and flies trying to land on me continuously.
I thought to myself: she did not know me, ever, this restless, tempestuous, impulsive and strong-willed spirit. We never corresponded. Yet I learned from her, from afar, many lessons about life and living. The marks she left on me were through her many Journals, some of her late poems especially, and one of my favorite of her novels, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. I don’t know that we would have liked each others’ company: we might have been too alike, in some ways, and rubbed each other the wrong way. That she cared deeply about the people in her life did not prevent her from being testy with them, or arguing with them when it mattered; we are alike in that. The testiness is a sign of impatience, perhaps, with those who we love who would rather linger in their self-absorbed feelings of being a victim than grab their lives, wrestle them into a mature shape, and live them to the hilt. But the testiness is also a sign of a passionate nature, wild and fiery, occasionally bursting out from behind the civilized veneer. I think we were alike, the writer and I, in this passion, as in our inability to suffer fools gladly. A failing I struggle with mightily at times.
It’s a beautiful cemetery. One of those New England cemeteries stuffed with history and memory, all crowded together, leaning on each other the way the oldest stones do. They become unreadable, even more mysterious, some of them etched black by weathering, standing as silent dark monoliths to Mystery. What lives were lived here now forgotten were as important to those who lived them as ours are to ourselves, now. New England is full of the restless dead, their markers creeping slowly downhill as time and the weather erodes the soil and makes it creep over the bedrock slabs underneath.
The old man who had dug the small pit
Opened the two boxes with a penknife
And let the ashes fall down into it,
The ashes of this husband and his wife,
My father and my mother gently laid
Into the earth and mingled there for good.
We watched the wind breathe up an aspen breath
And blow thin smoke along the grass—
And that was all, the bitterness of death
Lifted to air, laid in the earth. All was
Terribly silent where four people stood
Tall in the air, believing what they could.
—May Sarton, from A Durable Fire
After awhile sitting and thinking, then wandering through the rest of the cemetery, taking many photos—picturesque is the quaint but accurate word for it—I slowly walked back downhill to the library. The natives I passed were all friendly enough to say hello to a passing stranger, another oddball literary tourist or sightseeing pilgrim.
I went back into the library, grabbing my laptop, and looked through the Sarton loose papers in the box from the shelves. They were kind enough to let me Xerox whatever I wanted, which was about half of what they had. Among the papers were: the complete program for her memorial celebration; an interview with her about her neighbors, the Quigleys, after Quig had died; several other local articles about Sarton of which were new to me, and probably not well-known to many Sarton scholars; a cassette of the memorial service. I asked about the latter, hoping that they would digitize it to preserve it. If I'd had a cassette player, I would have recorded it into my laptop right then and there; if I get back to Nelson, I will do my best to do that next time.
I also chatted with the librarian for some time before leaving, about local history, and so on. She told me not too many had done as I did, to photocopy so much, to take with me. A visit like this, for me, is not just a pilgrimage, but also a learning trip; it brings out my natural scholarly research habits. For me, knowing a writer’s or artist’s place, for myself, so that I have my own sensory memories of it, helps me see more deeply into the wellsprings of their creative work. It locates the artist for me in a place, and helps me get a feel for the land-law of that place.
This was a very meaningful interlude, for me, in an otherwise tiring and distressed day.