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Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, by May Sarton.

February 26, 2016

Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, by May Sarton.  W. W. Norton & Company (1975), 224 pages

An old favorite of mine about an aging poet considering her life and pondering what it meant to be a poet and a woman.

May Sarton was a widely published author of both novels and journals chronicling her life as she aged. I have read and enjoyed a number of her books, but Mrs. Stevens has long been special to me. Although I am not a poet, Sarton’s depiction of Mrs. Stevens resonates with women like myself who have struggled with the definitions of womanhood accepted in late twentieth-century America.  I also resonated deeply with Sarton’s descriptions of her character’s shifting relationship with her young mind and her old body.

The book centers on an interview with Mrs. Stevens by two young reporters, a man and a woman. In the process of the interview, Mrs. Stevens experiences again the different passions and people who shaped each of her books of poetry. She clearly has loved both women and men, but she recalls her passions rather than the sexual details. Framing the interview is Mrs. Stevens’s interaction with Mar, the adolescent boy who helps in her garden. He is gay and trying sort out what that means.  Under her guidance, he too begins to write poetry and face the complexities of life.

As I reread this novel, I was struck by Sarton’s use of masculine and feminine to describe people’s language and style. I understood perfectly what she meant and her point that men and women could contain traits traditionally defined as masculine and feminine personas. This language seemed dated, more the language we used in the past. Yet the issues she raised have not gone away. How do women—or men—combine nurturing and care for others with a drive to be involved with art or politics outside the domestic setting? It is not that Sarton assumes men cannot be nurturing. She actually says that while she has loved women, “men have nurtured her.” But why is the placing of the daffodils to catch the sunlight a womanly act? Perhaps we have become less bound than Sarton was with the heroic image of the artist as needing to be totally free of domestic responsibility for others. Perhaps in “being herself” Mrs. Stevens has invented ways of expressing both her “masculine” and her “feminine” side.

I am glad that I reread this book and that it still prods me with unresolved questions. Like Mrs. Stevens, we have to deal with the chaos of life on a daily basis.

I recommend it to others feeling the impact of the changing gender definitions.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2016 10:07 pm

    I, too, loved that book years ago. Having had a transgender pastor lead worship at Pleasant Hill Community Church last Sunday and participated in her workshop on transgender issues that afternoon, many of the ways gender lines are blurred was part of my thinking as I read your “take” on your most recent visit with May Sarton.

  2. February 27, 2016 10:53 am

    Thanks. “Blurring” is a good way of expressing what I sensed. Maybe we have accomplished something with what has changed.

    Sorry not to have heard the minister. My computer had a virus which Don spent three days fixing, and things were a bit blurred over here this last weekend.

    Let’s try to get together sometime next week.


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