A novel about a lonely, aging poet who finds an unexpected muse to inspire his work: the neighbor’s donkey. 1969.
When I read A Shower of Summer Days, I was quite impressed. I’d read a few of May Sarton’s non-fiction journals, so I knew her prose was strong; it was just a matter of trying her fiction as well.
The Poet and the Donkey, however, was in a whole new class. After A Shower of Summer Days, I received recommendations to try more of her fiction. I’m not sure if this was the novel my readers were thinking of, but I’d like to think it is. Because this was such a charming little book–perfect for what it was.
Andy Lightfoot is our aging poet, who has perhaps always been the forlorn, “suffering” type–although it is especially bad right now, as he has lost his Muse. What is his Muse? Usually, it’s a woman. Most recently, it was a woman whom he met in passing and yet was the source of his artistic inspiration. Perhaps we could call it an obsession? At the very least, a fixation.
But things with this woman really did not progress, and eventually she got tired of him sending poems and calling her up on random evenings:
What she said had very little importance, and perhaps she divined this, for they talked chiefly about the weather, and never once did Andy ask whether she had read the poems.
I think we’ve all known this sort of person at some point, whether we’ve been on the receiving end of this strange, uncommunicative fixation, or we’d merely witnessed it being played out by others. Eventually, it gets too weird for Andy’s muse, and she stops taking his calls.
This all happened in the recent past, and now that we’ve met Andy ourselves, we are beginning to understand why he’s in this slump. He’s sort of an odd fellow: withdrawn from the world, and yet in desperate need of connection to it.
He knows things can’t go on like this. He is haunted by the silence in his head, caused by the absence of a Muse. For a spell, he tries gardening, but that proves unfruitful:
For the poet himself is his instrument, and when the instrument gets clouded over, confined, filled with silt and dust, it is a serious matter. Andy had no heart, after all, to remake the Japanese garden. He sat down in the armchair at the cold hearth and smelled the dank smell of his dead pipe. He had no wish to light it. He had reached a dead end.
Lest you assume this is a dull, plodding, solitary sort of novel, let me assure you: it’s not. Andy’s life is full of a cast of characters, most of whom appear only briefly, for a single episode. More importantly, we see that even if he doesn’t flat-out dislike them, he certainly does not connect to them in any real way.
I came to understand, in reading The Poet and the Donkey, that this is the role the Muse plays: it somehow cracks through the Andy shell and connects him to something outside of himself. And as a fellow introvert, I have to say that I can totally relate.
Andy’s salvation comes in the shape of a donkey. Specifically, an arthritic female donkey at the neighbor’s farm. Once the idea lands in his mind, Andy is once again fixated on this Muse. The difference is that this time, he doesn’t need to resort to awkward phone calls; he can just move the donkey right into his own backyard. She is attainable.
There’s not much plot to give away, as the main developments take place within Andy’s psyche. It’s a joyful kind of a book, the kind that makes you smile and shake your head at this strange, innocent folly.
For setting (New England), ambiance, protagonist (writer), and endearing combination of desperation/whimsy, it reminded me of another of my favorite books, Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist. There–now you have two (possibly three!) new books for your list.