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Poetry Friday: “Spring” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

By (April 5, 2013) No Comment


I’d been encouraged, during the past week or so, by seeing more and more crocus flowers during my trips through town. The brave green leaves have been up for almost two weeks now, but the petals are a lovely new addition to the landscape — purple, yellow, white. Daffodils, too, and jonquils — though I’ve never learned how to tell the difference, I’m grateful for both.

Though temperatures around here haven’t exactly approached springtime levels (looks April; feels February), I’d been confident someone was working on this. And what’s left of winter? Only its ashes: grains of rock salt, piles of grit, dusty shovels. Mittens have hidden themselves away. All in all, who wouldn’t have been ready to claim the warmth and march forward into a new season?

And then I encountered Spring:

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. …

Say what?

Red and wet and sticky? If you first consider the fledgling baby leaves just opening, how could you not also be reminded of a child’s bloody knee, scraped in a playground scuffle. But, how dark is your world? Would you be inclined to think of larger wounds in graver situations? The omnipresent grit of newspaper headlines — a traffic accident around the corner; a paramilitary skirmish around the world; a natural disaster bringing calamity. Something fallen down; something else rising up — always changing; always broken somehow. How much peril does there need to be?

Red and wet and sticky? These qualities don’t always signal dangerous endings, but new beginnings, too — more precisely, the fluid admixture of life and death that is human sexuality: flowing, coupling, giving birth. Is there any part that isn’t red and wet and sticky? Beginning or ending, coming or going, who can tell?

Red and wet and sticky? It’s the very fluid that courses through our bodies, giving us structure, filling out our content, setting us forth. Setting us up, really, for death. Obsess on this unsettling mote of color and texture and you’ve fallen into the abyss that is Edna St. Vincent Millay.

With a dash of mercy, however, she goes on to suggest a little something of warmth and confidence (perhaps all is not lost?) –

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, in the end, finds herself begging questions that shiver the spines of even the most leftist of revolutionaries:

Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.

“Not only under ground” will be the motto and rallying cry of the Occupy Vincent movement. Ultimately, always, it is death in the midst of life — no easy transition between changing seasons. Capture this darker appreciation of springtime in one plain and discomforting image:

Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.

Uncarpeted stairs can be useful, but are basically bare, hard, noisy, cold, uncomfortable. Is she right to trouble our hard-earned springtime with sobering images of mortality, whether stickily red or unyielding oak? It is an emptiness all the more frightening for its simplicity.

So, if we concede that springtime (even springtime) is not enough, whence cometh hope? (To what purpose, April, do you return again?)

I found one answer earlier this week on the arm of a cashier at a nearby coffee shop. She has a tattoo on the underside of her left forearm that proclaims, in humble lowercase letters –

i’m enough.


Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), a Vassar graduate, was the author of several collections of poetry (e.g., The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay) and a handful of verse dramas. Themes of sexuality and social justice, among others, readily found a place in her works. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 and, in 1943, the Frost Medal “for distinguished lifetime achievement in American Poetry.” I think it would have been awesome to sit in as the fourth in a bridge tournament with Vincent, Grace Paley, and Flannery O’Connor.

(“Sunrise” from Gunnarmex / cc by)