Finding Self-Reliance in May Sarton’s ‘Dead Center’

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Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I’ve never thought hard about why I love May Sarton’s “Dead Center”—I’ve never seriously studied Letters from Maine, the collection in which it appears, or Sarton herself. But “Dead Center” is one of those poems that I’m drawn to in the somber, reflective moments, often after a tough day, when I’m seeking a sense of equilibrium, and maybe a little bleakness to match my mood. Here’s a taste:

Temperature zero, the road an icy glare,
The field, once ermine soft, now hard and bright.
Even my cat’s paws find no footing there.
And I sit watching barren winter sunlight
Travel the empty house. I sit and stare.

It’s a poem about being in the cold, which is probably where my attraction to it starts. I’ve always loved cold winter days and how they challenge the senses: the sharpness of inhaling and exhaling in frigid air, the unrelenting glitter of sun on snow, the heightened awareness of where my body is and what parts of it are exposed and how very much alive I am, despite the thermostat. I hear echoes of this same experience in “Dead Center”: it’s a reminder that the body is a miracle, resilient in adverse conditions, physical or emotional. Continuing on:

This is dead center. I am the one
Who holds it in myself, the one who sees
And can contain ocean and sky and sun
And keep myself alive in the deep freeze
With a warm uncontaminated vision.

I think it’s Sarton’s parsing of what “dead center” is—a celebration of the blood that keeps on pumping, through loss and cold and “leaps into the dark, lovers unkind,” alongside an acknowledgement of mortality (“Temperature zero, and death on my mind”)—that brings me back to these stanzas over and over again. There’s a certain comfort in thinking about self-reliance as a matter of flesh and blood and breath.

It is all in myself, hope and despair.
The heartbeat never stops. The veins are filled
And my warm blood in the cold winter air
Will not be frozen or be winter-killed.
Poetry comes back with the starving deer.