Book: May Sarton’s collection of poetry A Grain of Mustard Seed. I mentioned this poem, the Invocation to Kali, before, back when I first bought the book. Well, I liked it so much that I ended up writing a whole annotation on it. And my enthusiasm seems to have come through in the essay, because my advisor responded by saying that she didn’t think she liked May Sarton, but now she wanted to get a copy of this book and read it for herself.
Fierce Poetry: May Sarton’s Invocation to Kali
“She comes to purge the altars in her way,
And at her altar we shall have to pray.”
I am beginning my annotation of May Sarton’s poem “The Invocation to Kali” with a quotation from the poem, because the poem itself begins with a quotation from Joseph Campbell’s book The Masks of God, and that quote drew me strongly into the poem when I first read it. Campbell’s words detail the goddess Kali’s existence as a being who is both constantly hungry and constantly giving birth, personifying the cycle of destruction and creation. Sarton has used the idea of this goddess to explore and struggle with the human tendency for amazing violence, specifically the concentration camps during World War II. The poem is composed of five sections, and in each one Sarton has chosen to write in a different poetic form. Both the length of the poem and the formal decisions feel very natural to the poem’s subject matter. It feels as though Sarton has chosen carefully in the creation of each of these sections, making sure that the poem has the time and space to move through its struggle at a natural pace and not be rushed or cramped. Each section’s tone and form feels natural to its content.
I was especially interested in Sarton’s decision to compose the third section of the poem, the one about concentration camps, in the form of a sestina. This is a difficult form, and many of the sestinas I’ve read before have felt forced and awkward. The ones I’ve tried to write myself have certainly been pretty bad! It’s an especially interesting choice for Sarton here, because it’s used in the central section of the poem—both physically and emotionally central. This is where the poem moves into specifics, where Sarton provides an example to support what she’s saying philosophically in the rest of the poem. I think the sestina succeeds here because its subject matter is so baffling and uncomfortable. The repetitive and circling nature of the form mirrors the way the human mind reacts naturally to horrible thoughts. The mind scurries and tries to escape or justify, but the awful images keep coming back. The whole poem is about this same truth—we cannot escape the fact that we do terrible things sometimes. We must come to terms with the existence of Kali, because we can’t have light without darkness.
The final section of the poem was also an interesting formal choice to me. After reading the rest of the poem, I was expecting another piece divided into even stanzas, probably with end-rhymes and standard line-lengths. Instead, the fifth section is composed in free verse. But again, Sarton’s interesting choice works perfectly within this poem. The move to free verse creates a sense of opening at the end, releasing the reader somewhat from the tension of the rest of the poem. This section also feels very much like a prayer, so it gives the feeling of being in a form without being as strictly formal as the rest of the poem. One could also say that this section is formal in the other sense of the word, that it has solemnity and dignity. Its language is elevated, and it is the first time that Kali is addressed directly in the poem: “Kali, be with us. / Violence, destruction, receive our homage.”
Finally, I just want to point out how fabulous this stanza from the first section is. Since it speaks of poetry, I feel that as a poet I have to give this stanza its due respect. I think these words can speak for themselves, therefore I am going to both begin and end this annotation with a quotation.
“I am the cage where poetry
Paces and roars. The beast
is the god. How murder the god?
How live with the terrible god?”