I read her poetry in high school but was never taken with her tight, lyrical sonnets. I’m sure I used her image of the candle burning at both ends – but I’m not sure I knew where it came from. I had seen one of her portraits – Arnold Genthe’s photograph of her holding two flowering branches – and thought of her as a romantic, a pre-Raphaelite, an ethereal Waterhouse lady poet. If I thought of her at all, that is.
Then I was accepted for a residency at the Millay Colony for the Arts. A week before I left, in a hot Washington summer, I read two biographies: Savage Beauty and What Lips My Lips Have Kissed. And it struck me like a wet slap: I didn’t know jack about Edna St. Vincent Millay.
She went by Vincent. She was talented and ambitious, by turns hot and cold, sexual and disdainful, gorgeous and dirty. She was a passionate and omnivorous lover of both men and women and she used her passions to fuel her poetry. Her candle burned at both ends nearly her entire life.
My studio at the Millay Colony for the Arts was in the barn that Millay and her husband had built on their estate, Steepletop, in Austerlitz, NY. Steepletop was built the year that Millay was born (with no knowledge that she would eventually live there) and the Millay Colony began the year I was born (equally ignorant that I would someday write there). I slept in a bedroom beneath a leaf-green quilt, and wrote in a studio on the floor above, one wall curving to fit the arc of the barn’s roof. My windows looked out over a field of goldenrod and an apple tree that Millay herself had planted. If I felt restless I was free to roam the grounds of Steepletop, to sit in Millay’s gardens, to work at a table set up at the very top of the estate overlooking the ridges and rows of surrounding mountains. Or I could walk the Poet’s Trail to Millay’s grave.
Millay came to Steepletop with her husband, Eugene Boissevain, to escape the noise and crush of New York City’s Greenwich Village. They had met at a party, fallen in love while playing a game of charades, and married two months later. They first lived in a tiny house at 75 ½ Bedford Street (the ½ giving you an idea of how small it was; each room was only about nine feet wide). But as much as they loved their little home, Millay needed space and quiet, broad views and stars at night. So they moved to the country, to Steepletop.
I visited Steepletop on Friday the 13th of September, 2013. That same day, 421 years ago, Montaigne died. That morning a fellow resident told me it was the anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s suicide (although I later learned he killed himself on the 12th). It was also my last day in residence at the Millay Colony for the Arts. All of these overlaps felt auspicious. In a fine misty rain, I crossed the road and joined a tour of her house.
If you have read any of Millay’s biographies you know that as you walk in the front door you are walking into the scene of the last moments of her life. But the guide began at the beginning, with the story of Millay’s rise to success, how she was published at 15, how her poem “Renascence” was considered the best in the prestigious Lyric Year, how she had been given a scholarship to Vassar, how she had seduced her fellow students, how she won a Pulitzer, how she moved to New York and met Eugene and came to Steepletop.
There in the entranceway is her .22 rifle, her saddle and a pair of impossibly small riding boots. Size 3, the docent says. He calls her Vincent. What makes us choose to call a writer by her first or last name? To me she remains Millay, even after I see a photograph of her, posing with a friend and an urn, nude.
The photo is in her dining room, the table set as if she and Eugene were about to descend for dinner. Her shell and coral collections sit exactly as she left them in her corner cupboard. There is what the guide called “Orientalia” on the walls and shelves, souvenirs from their honeymoon, including a series of Javanese shadow puppets lining the wall of her hall.
Upstairs, her bedroom. After a blistering affair with a younger man, the poet George Dillon, she asked Eugene to move out of their shared bedroom. As with all of her requests (to vacation with Dillon in Europe, to attempt a ménage a trois) he obliged. Still, their marriage remained unbreakable, perhaps because he allowed it to bend. Millay’s bedroom remains almost as she left it, despite the fact that her sister Norma lived in her house for decades after Millay’s death. Norma “lived around” Millay, the guide said. I thought the toiletries in the shoebox on the dressing table would have been Millay’s, but no – they were Norma’s, and Millay’s sat where she had left them.
Millay’s library was a room only she was allowed to enter. Here she kept a “five foot shelf” of her current reading. And a daybed for reading or drowsing. Three portraits of the poets she admired: Sappho, Shelly and Robinson Jeffers. And a sign that reads “silence” – a joke, since she was the only one there, both librarian and reader.
And then the tour came full circle, back to the top of the stairs. On these stairs she liked to perch and chat with arriving or departing guests. And on these stairs she made her final departure. Early on the morning of October 18, 1950, dizzy from a night of gin and white wine, she pitched forward, grabbed a spindle of the staircase, broke it, fell, and died. A caretaker found her the next day. The ninth spindle remains broken.
Later that day, back in the barn, climbing the stairs to my studio, I paused a moment. Did I feel a slight tug, a small threat to my balance? Or was it my own hesitation, thinking how easily one’s life could come crashing down, how your story would pass from your own possession, and how a biographer or a tour guide might shape it from there?
That night one of the other residents – a playwright with a diploma from the French Culinary Institute – and I made a tart with apples from Millay’s tree.
The apples were small and hard and each the size of a small plum. They were crisp and tart but sweet enough to enjoy – much like Millay, perhaps. While the playwright finely sliced them, making little armadillo humps in the crust, I read from a collection of Millay’s poems. They were a little rough to take all at once, and none had anything to do with apples or tarts (not in the culinary sense, anyway). But I had been working on an essay that explores hauntedness, and it was my last night at the Colony, and I still felt vaguely unsettled by the shrine-like quality of Steepletop, and Sonnet XLIII deeply impressed me:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply …
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
Outside the night had turned dark and still, the windows black reflections of our warm kitchen. The tart went into the oven and I went to bed.
In the morning I woke up early, before anyone else, and found the tart in the toaster oven, safe from the mice that had been nosing around the kitchen since the weather cooled. I ate a large slice of it with coffee. “I am eating your apples,” I said to no one. I wrote a little in my journal. I packed up the last few odds and ends from my room. I got in my car and rolled my windows down to the fall air.
It was time to leave, but I tried to soak it all in for one last moment – the barn, the goldenrod, the apple tree, the table atop Steepletop, the tiny boots in the entranceway, the narrow staircase, the vanishing birds and the song I could still hear. But it was all going, or gone, and without thinking too much more about it, I turned the key and drove home.
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