Yearly, Down this Hill: A Love Note to Edna St. Vincent Millay


This essay was first published on Fourth & Sycamore
To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
– Spring, Edna St. Vincent Millay, from Second April, 1921

millayNo, Edna, it isn’t enough. You were right, as you were so often during your thunderclap of a life. But it sure the hell helps that April scatters those flowers all over the place every year.

Edna, you knew more than you should have had to about the rot hiding under life’s green surface. You were acquainted early with poverty and illness, and you died in only your sixth decade of life. And that life, well. You lived it, and you lived it like you knew the end could come any day (that candle never stopped burning from both ends). You traveled and drank too much and spoke your mind, your gravelly voice carrying poetry and smoke. you loved women and men and both with eager disregard for the moral strictures of your day. You fought against sexism, against conscienceless capitalism, against war, against moral hypocrisy. You fought against boredom. In the end you fought yourself, wielding a sword dipped in wine and morphine. No April was going to fool you; you knew about December, and December came early.

Still, April is something, isn’t she? She talks too much and spills her drink when she really gets going (she talks with her hands), but she laughs freely. April isn’t the friend you talk to on the phone for an hour every night; she’s the friend who takes you out once a year and makes you laugh till your sides hurt and maybe gets you home just a little too late. But I’m pretty sure you were that same friend. (Was she a rival?)

It is not enough, Edna. April strews her flowers knowing August will bake them dry and October will sweep them under the rug of winter, shaking her head. They never seem to tire of their Sisyphean routines. It is the end of March here in the American midwest, and April is just preparing to spread her wares across the tabletop of Ohio. We will welcome her, aware she isn’t all she promises. Still, she’s nice to catch up with. I’d like to pour us glasses of wine and sit with her together, you and I making eye contact and smiling when she gets tipsy before the night is through. Here’s to you, Edna. I turn to your poetry every spring, however ill a fit that might seem for anyone who knows you. What can I say? It gives a lovely light.

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