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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Edna St. Vincent Millay

A new used bookstore opened in Charlottetown on Friday, just across the street from where I work. So before work, I took a look in, and found an edition of Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Wine From These Grapes," printed in 1934. I read and re-read it at work, came home and just finished recording six poems from it; Autumn Daybreak, Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies, In The Grave No Flower, Sonnet, Spring in the Garden, The Fledgling. You can find the audio files here.

I'm too tired to look for links to the text of the poems — it's 6 am here, and I gotta sleep — but I'll either link to them tomorrow or scan them in and post them as an update.

update: Below are the texts to the above-mentioned poems. I've tried to stay as true as possible to how they are laid-out in "Wine From These Grapes."


COLD wind of autumn, blowing loud

At dawn, a fortnight overdue,

jostling the doors, and tearing through

My bedroom to rejoin the cloud,

I know—for I can hear the hiss

And scrape of leaves along the floor—

How many boughs, lashed bare by this,

Will rake the cluttered sky once more.

Tardy, and somewhat south of east,

The sun will rise at length, made known

More by the meagre light increased

Than by a disk in splendour shown;

When, having but to turn my head,

Through the stripped maple I shall see,

Bleak and remembered, patched with red,

The hill all summer hid from me.


CHILDHOOD is not from birth to a certain age and at a certain age

The child is grown, and puts away childish things.

Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.

Nobody that matters, that is. Distant relatives of course

Die, whom one never has seen or has seen for an hour,

And they gave one candy in a pink-and-green striped bag, or a jack-knife,

And went away, and cannot really be said to have lived at all.

And cats die. They lie on the floor and lash their tails,

And their reticent fur is suddenly all in motion

With fleas that one never knew were there,

Polished and brown, knowing all there is to know,

Trekking off into the living world.

You fetch a shoe-box, but it's much too small, because she won't curl up now:

So you find a bigger box, and bury her in the yard, and weep.

But you do not wake up a month from then, two months,

A year from then, two years, in the middle of the night

And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God! Oh, God!

Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies that matters,—mothers and fathers don't die.

And if you have said, "For heaven's sake, must you always be kissing a person?"

Or, "I do wish to gracious you'd stop tapping on the window with your thimble!"

Tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow if you're busy having fun,

Is plenty of time to say, "I'm sorry, mother."

To be grown up is to sit at the table with people who have died, who neither listen nor speak;

Who do not drink their tea, though they always said

Tea was such a comfort.

Run down into the cellar and bring up the last jar of raspberries; they are not tempted.

Flatter them, ask them what was it they said exactly

That time, to the bishop, or to the overseer, or to Mrs. Mason;

They are not taken in.

Shout at them, get red in the face, rise,

Drag them up out of their chairs by their stiff shoulders and shake them and yell at them;

They are not startled, they are not even embarrassed; they slide back into their chairs.

Your tea is cold now.

You drink it standing up,

And leave the house.


HERE dock and tare.

But there

No flower.

Here beggar-ticks, 'tis true;

Here the rank-smelling

Thorn-apple,-and who

Would plant this by his dwelling?

Here every manner of weed

To mock the faithful harrow:

Thistles, that feed

None but the finches; yarrow,

Blue vervain, yellow charlock; here

Bindweed, that chokes the struggling year;

Broad plantain and narrow.

But there no flower.

The rye is vexed and thinned,

The wheat comes limping home,

By vetch and whiteweed harried, and the sandy bloom

Of the sour-grass; here

Dandelions,—and the wind

Will blow them everywhere.

Save there.


No flower.


TIME, that renews the tissues of this frame,

That built the child and hardened the soft bone,

Taught him to wail, to blink, to walk alone,

Stare, question, wonder, give the world a name,

Forget the watery darkness whence he came,

Attends no less the boy to manhood grown,

Brings him new raiment, strips him of his own;

All skins are shed at length, remorse, even shame.

Such hope is mine, if this indeed be true,

I dread no more the first white in my hair,

Or even age itself, the easy shoe,

The cane, the wrinkled hands, the special chair:

Time, doing this to me, may alter too

My sorrow, into something I can bear.


AH, CANNOT the curled shoots of the larkspur that you loved so,

Cannot the spiny poppy that no winter kills

Instruct you how to return through the thawing ground and the thin snow

Into this April sun that is driving the mist between the hills?

A good friend to the monkshood in a time of need

You were, and the lupine's friend as well;

But I see the lupine lift the ground like a tough weed

And the earth over the monkshood swell

And I fear that not a root in all this heaving sea

Of land, has nudged you where you lie, has found

Patience and time to direct you, numb and stupid as you still must be

From your first winter underground.


SO, ART thou feathered, art thou flown,

Thou naked thing?—and canst alone

Upon the unsolid summer air

Sustain thyself, and prosper there?

Shall I no more with anxious note

Advise thee through the happy day,

Thrusting the worm into thythroat,

Bearing thine excrement away?

Alas, I think I see thee yet,

Perched on the windy parapet,

Defer thy flight a moment still

To clean thy wing with careful bill.

And thou art feathered, thou art flown;

And hast a project of thine own.


Brenda Schmidt said...

Nice. I'm not familiar with Millay's work.

MackJohnny said...

I'm just getting familiar with her, myself. I'm liking her a bit -- she's got the darkness I love, and she seems to pull no punches. I can't decided which of the poems I've posted I liked best, though I know it's not The Fledgling.

It does seem to me that Autumn Daybreak, in its clean, technical prowess, and its photo-quality capture of its subject, plus the "strangeness" and depth of the final stanza, is a small masterpiece.

Humble Servant said...

The payoff of Spring in the Garden--the last stanza--"numb and stupid" is great; and I like the part in Childhood about talking to the dead at your table.

As you mention, her last stanzas generally seem strong--a buildup to the strong idea/phrase in the last line or two. (In Childhood the tag-end stanza is not the emotional end--it is there to soften the penultimate stanza where the power is.) I am okay with this, though it might be better if the pattern varied--in jokes the puchline/payoff is always at the end but poems don't have to do this. I don't know if all of her poems are like this or if the sample is skewed.

Sad and dark for a Monday apring morning--where are the sunshine and lollipops?

MackJohnny said...

"Run down into the cellar and bring up the last jar of raspberries; they are not tempted."

Does anything need to be said about "Childhood..." other than repeating that line?

Sonnet keeps growing on me -- doesn't it break the pattern you mention?

Where's the sunshine, etc, you ask?

"Lollipop, lollipop,
lolli, lolli, lollipop!"

How's that?

Humble Servant said...

You're probably right about Sonnet, though the intent may have been that the sorrow, introduced only in the last line, should have had a greater impact than it did in fact--it is the "puzzle" solution as to why she was talking about time changing things in the first place.

But, if the only criticism I can make is that the placement of the payoff pitch usually comes at the end, she's doing okay for herself.

(I'll take a side of fuzzy bunnies with the lollipops, please.)