Sarah Yerkes was in her 90s when a friend invited her to try something new. A graduate of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, Yerkes had had decades-long careers: first as a landscape architect using brick and stone; then as a sculptor creating abstract works in wood and steel, and in her later years, papier-mache.
But as she aged, sculpting had become physically challenging. A fellow resident at Ingleside at Rock Creek, the D.C. retirement community where she lives, had started taking a poetry writing class, so Yerkes joined, too.
Last month, at age 101, she released her first collection of poems, “Days of Blue and Flame,” published by Passager Books at the University of Baltimore. The book is the latest iteration of a creative mind that has worked with form and style for the better part of a century.
“I really feel like the good fairies were standing over my cradle, giving me the oomph to create,” Yerkes said recently while eating a breakfast of cornflakes and toast in her apartment.
A 74-year resident of Washington, Yerkes was raised in Cleveland and educated as an architect. She fell into landscape design accidentally when she and a friend entered a contest and won. They ended up opening a business together.
Sculpting came to her decades later, after she was in her 50s and newly married to her second husband, architect David Yerkes.
“I was living in the Watergate and I didn’t have much to do and I thought, ‘Oh my, what’s going to happen to me?’ ” She heard about a sculpture class starting up nearby. “So I went pottering down to the Corcoran. I just loved it. So I kept on going down to the Corcoran twice a week and I got to the point where I wanted to start showing.”
She worked as a sculptor into her early 80s, when she and her husband moved to Ingleside. There was less room to work, and her stamina began to flag. “I started to make small pieces but then I sort of ran out of steam, and it was harder to work and I just didn’t think it was very important anymore,” she said.
At Ingleside, she became friends with Henry Morgenthau III, a retired television producer whose father had been treasury secretary under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The two had never met, but they were the same age, had traveled in similar circles and got along well.
Morgenthau had been attending the monthly poetry workshop and encouraged Yerkes to join him. Last year, upon turning 100, he published his first book of poems, which knits together key moments in U.S. history, such as the death of Roosevelt, with intimate, sometimes painful reflections on coming of age at a time when being Jewish, or questioning one’s sexuality, were subjects often left unexplored.
For Yerkes, the unexplored lay in feelings she learned to repress growing up in, as she put it, “a waspy society.” But her upbringing also instilled diligence. The workshop’s teacher, Bonnie Naradzay, would offer prompts, such as writing on a certain theme, or in the style of a particular poet, and she was struck by the way Yerkes would take a prompt and run with it, even as she protested that she “did not really write poetry.”
“I loved the fact that she is a sculptor,” Naradzay said. “I realized what a lively and intuitive mind she has — or should I say, imaginative. She said it was kind of like doing a sculpture.”
Passager Books, which also published Morgenthau’s book, focuses on older writers. But age hasn’t limited Yerkes, said Kendra Kopelke, the press’s co-editor. “When you are older, you have to adapt to a smaller universe, but you bring to that all the tools you have learned throughout your life and apply them in new and interesting ways,” she said. “At a time we normally think of as winding down, Sarah’s imagination is unfolding.”
Yerkes’s life history reminded Naradzay of another sculptor-poet connection: that of Auguste Rodin and Rainer Maria Rilke, who worked as Rodin’s secretary for a time. “Rodin told Rilke, ‘You don’t sit and wait for inspiration; you sit down and get to work — you do it as if you’re doing a regular job,’ ” Naradzay said.
But a regular job doesn’t always require a person to plumb her own soul. Some of the poems “are very personal, and I wouldn’t normally discuss such matters” with the people who might read her book, Yerkes said.
In “Fear of Feeling,” she reflects on the “cool reserve” she always maintained even under traumatic circumstances. Visiting an ill uncle, the teenage Yerkes was taken aback when he burst into tears.
I had never seen a man cry before —
the exposure of raw feeling was horrifying.
I promised myself I would never again
be involved in such a shattering situation.
It’s not just tears I turned off.
I feel as though since then
I have been more of an observer
than a participant in life.
Some of these feelings Yerkes had not shared with even close family members. “I was just writing for me. I didn’t think of it being in the public domain or that anyone would be interested,” she said.
But a book would lay it out for all to read. With an expression bordering on distaste, she acknowledged that, adding, “So I have to show my inner feelings, I guess.”
Yerkes’s son Amos Satterlee, 66, disputes his mother’s image of herself as emotionally distant. Her poems “might give you the sense that she’s this uncommunicative brick wall, which wasn’t the case,” he said.
However, he added, her venture into poetry has been a journey into a more emotional place. “She came up in the Bauhaus modern aesthetic environment, which was fundamentally very intellectual. … So, the course of going from that into the sculpture and now into the poetry, it’s a journey into emotion.”
Yerkes has two other children, both grown women. But there was a fourth, her oldest, a son who died of leukemia at age 5 and appears in a poem called “Believing.”
I gaze at the photograph of my little boy,
Is he still five or is he seventy-five?
Does he wait for me on a distant shore
or has he gone on, grown into a new life?
Yerkes’s other major loss was her second husband, who died in 2011. Some of his works hang in her apartment — bold, abstract paintings, and a pen and ink sketch of a scene in Antalya, Turkey. His final painting was completed on the day he died. It became the subject of a poem, as well as the cover of her book.
But the poem that perhaps best reflects Yerkes’s multidimensional artistic trajectory is “Quilts and Verses.” In it, she recalls a country butcher’s mother, who would hoard patches of colored cloth, saving them for patchwork quilts.
“Both verse and quilt need reasons to survive — / expressions of a message, a design,” she wrote. “Creators all will find that in them, curled / a valued insight waits to be unfurled.”
This couple has been homeless and jobless. Last week, they graduated from a D.C. charter high school.