My good friend Krystyna Poray Goddu, author of a biography for young people of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay– A Girl Called Vincent has been on my mind of late. Krystyna and I met in 2015, when she was living in Cumberland, Maryland, not far from my farm in Pennsylvania. As we chatted over lunch one afternoon, we were more than a little surprised to learn that we were both writing books about Millay. And I couldn’t have been more delighted that–unlike most people of my generation–she knew all about my grandfather Floyd Dell, a friend and lover of the great poet. Since our books came out within a year of each other, we participated together in several Millay-related events–a literary festival in Maine and a few readings. I was disappointed when she left Maryland for her longtime home in New York City, but I understood. She was a city girl in a way that I wasn’t.
Over the past several months, I’ve not been able to imagine living in an apartment in Manhattan, unable to go out and about, but both upbeat and resourceful, Krystyna has continued working as an editor and as a teacher (via Zoom and in person), writing book reviews and a picture-book biography of Joan Baez. Through it all she hasn’t left Millay behind, and continues to serve as a member of the The Millay Society Board of Trustees.
The Millay Society exists to “illuminate the life and writings of Edna St. Vincent Millay and to preserve the character of Steepletop, her home in Austerlitz, New York.” I’ve visited Steepletop three times now and I love it more each time I visit. I can’t go there without thinking of my grandparents’ farmhouse in Richmond, New Hampshire, less than two hours away. As a writer, and Dell daughter, I’ve always been intrigued by the lives of my grandparents, Edna St. Vincent Millay, her husband Eugen Boissevain, and their friends, all of whom were so interesting, talented and smart. What great conversations they must have had at the dinner table. I’ve often wondered if I shouldn’t write a novel based on the relationship between Millay, her husband, my grandparents, and their mutual friends the poet, Arthur Ficke, and his artist wife, Gladys Brown. Once I get my memoir between covers, perhaps . . .
This morning, Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac featured the Millay poem “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed”–and her birthday –February 22, 1892.
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, And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain For unremembered lads that not again Will turn to me at midnight with a cry. Thus in the 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.
Perhaps it was this post that prompted my stepmother Kate to send me a link to “Burning Candles,” a documentary directed by Robert Duncan in 2009. Kate has never been much of a Millay fan. Her comment along with the link confirms this: “Understatement Alert: Edna Millay was not very nice.” Well, it’s not only Kate who thinks this. Millay’s biographer Nancy Milford, the late executor of the Millay Literary Estate, Elizabeth Barnett, and my grandfather Floyd all agree with her. But I suspect that, like me, Krystyna is willing to forgive her her trespasses. She may not have been as nice as some, but, man could that woman write poetry!