The last poem I loved also happens to be the first poem I loved enough to set to memory. Here’s why: it made me burst into tears in front of my classmates. Abject humiliation = required memorization. Simple.
Me: College girl, English major, first time in love. I’m sitting in a poetry class, listening to a beloved professor read this poem. Emotion chokes his voice, and suddenly I’m in tears, too:
Yet many a man is making friends with death, even as I speak,
For lack of love alone.
My eyes fill, heart overflowing with sophomoric pity for myself and other young romantics who suffer (what do we know of suffering?) the desolation of lovelessness (what do we know of love?)—unending isolation, heavy and dimensionless as fog. (Isolation we know.)
And that first world- and heart-expanding rush of realizing that the young man across from me, the sight of whose collarbones made my fingers tingle and curl inside my mittens when I met him at the dormitory door—that young man loves me back? That makes me cry, too—relief, mostly, that I will have some other companion than my own voice talking back to me in my head—some friend in this world, other than death.
My professor stops reading and peers at me over the top of his glasses.
I am, officially, a mess.
So I memorize the poem: 1) to commemorate that emotional paroxysm, a kind of public climax I’ve never before experienced in the K-12 education process, 2) to see if I can recreate it at will (only occasionally, and usually while driving or when it’s otherwise very inconvenient and/or hazardous to be crying), and 3) to climb inside this poem—and let it clamber around inside me—for the next thirty years or so.
See if it can’t eventually make better sense of me than I can of it.
What sense I made of it initially is probably the typical college-level reading: the grand theme of love—satirically pooh-poohed as inconsequential by the poet in a cascading series of images worthy of the fly-in cameras of CSI and Bones: a hungry man; a homeless man; [camera swoops in] a drowning man [now diving down the bronchial passage] whose filling lungs struggle for breath; [scope narrows further, for even finer detail] whose blood vessels are clogged and gasping; [camera angle changes to focus on the fractured ends of bone rasping his raw meat] whose very bones fail.
Love touches none of this pain, the poet sneers. And yet . . . the camera pans out from the body’s interior, to a room. A bedside, where a man sits, gun in hand. To an open window, a high ledge.
The scene shifts, and the poet’s camera angles in from across the room. Lovers, heads bowed together, hands touching. It well may be . . . pain or hunger, despair—the same struggles that Love (with its self-important Capital Letter) has no solution for—may drive one to choose relief, or peace, or food, or breath, or survival—anything, everything, instead of the beloved.
The camera lens focuses even more tightly. The poet carries us into the most intimate space possible between two people.
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
or trade the memory of this night for food.
Thirty or so years ago, a young college girl in love with the young college boy across from her in poetry class knew, with every pulsing, horny, first-love cell in her, that the last line of the poem
It well may be. I do not think I would.
was as final a declaration of love’s great all-sufficiency, and the heart’s steadfastness, as poetry could offer.
I know better now.
Thirty years later
In the words of the gentle Miss Eyre: “Reader, I married him.” That boy with the fabulous collarbones and I just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. [I realize that this confession may lose some readers outright—monogamous long-term heterosexual marriage not being exactly fashionable these days—but hang in there. Might still be some good stuff.]
During the years in between—kids and jobs and moving households and stony silence and exhaustion and repeatedly losing and finding and melting into each other–St. Vincent Millay’s poem has broken my heart a million times. It has taught me more about its meaning—and the workings of my own heart and marriage—than my dear professor could have, or that that I could possibly have imagined, sitting in that quiet classroom, streaming surprised and embarrassed tears in front of my classmates. Because this? “I might be driven to sell your love for peace/or trade the memory of this night for food… “ I did exactly that—over and over and over again.
This poem, climbing around my memories and experiences, has settled here and there over the years and pointed its camera lens quietly, focused in. Here. See that? That’s what you did. 40 lbs gained after two babies, and then just kept going? Busted. Choosing food as drug of choice? Very clear. No sex tonight? This month? For a year? How about eight years? Ouch. This betrayal is possible, even in love. Hell, most often in love. This is the truth of it.
(Cue more surprised and embarrassed tears.)
And what is it I have to offer to my beloved of more than 25 years, in that sacred and intimate space the poem finally brings us to? Not my firm declarations of undying love. Not my firm breasts (those are long gone, at least one nursing baby ago). Just this: my broken self, my imperfect love. The possibility that I’ll make the wrong choices, say the wrong thing, or fail to speak at all—and bring that fog of isolation rolling right back into the midst of us. I do not think I would. But I might. Because I already have. It well may be. Love me, even so. Even so. And I will promise to do the same for you.
Walking miles along the beach during our 25th anniversary getaway—a bit of a 2nd honeymoon—this poem was still clambering around my heart. Happier images now, having learned some of its lessons, made some better choices, reconciled and healed what could be healed—forgiven what could not. Perhaps this is the best and the worst of love, lived in partnership over the course of more than a quarter century: in the end, in that quiet space between lovers imagined by the poet, we have only ourselves to offer for “the healing of harms”, as C. S. Lewis put it—the hurts that come from living in this world—the hurts we inflict on ourselves—most especially the pain we give each other. Within the embrace of that flawed and beautiful reality, this poem teaches me, love grows, wounds heal. May we find that, at the right time, it will have been enough.