Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Spongy Wall of Death: "Moriturus" by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Now comes the season of death: winter, with its stripped trees, long darkness, blankets of snow quiet as the grave.  This is the symbolism of nature that reminds us our time is short, our personal winter is coming.

In "Moriturus," the opening poem of her 1928 collection The Buck In The Snow, Edna St. Vincent Millay fought against her approaching death (which wouldn't come until 1950, when she fell down the stairs in her home).  Millay dismisses death with a flick of her hand, calling it nothing--in fact, "less/Than Echo answering/'Nothingness!'"  Death is smaller than the hinge of a spider's eyelid.  And yet, it comes for us all.  Millay vows to resist the Grim Reaper by barring her door and then shoving a heavy piece of furniture in front of that door: "I shall put up a fight,/I shall take it hard."  And then in those final, perfect lines of "Moriturus," she writes:
With his hand on my mouth
    He shall drag me forth,
Shrieking to the south
    And clutching at the north.
Fight, Edna, fight!  Kick against the dying light.

I'm a fresh convert to Millay's poetry after discovering a beautiful little hardback edition of The Buck in the Snow in a Montana antique mall this past weekend.  Jean and I were on a holiday shopping trip, courtesy of our friends Barb and Tom from b.e. At Home, riding on a bus throughout the Flathead Valley, sipping mimosas and stopping every hour to cash-mob an antique store.  (If you think this wasn't the perfect romantic weekend, then you just don't know us very well.)  It was on the next-to-last stop of our tour when I found my Millay tucked away on a dusty shelf in the Kalispell Antique Market.  For some reason, I'd always thought ESVM was a bard of Hallmark greeting card quality, someone who wrote beautifully though shallowly about trees and leaves and wind.

I opened The Buck in the Snow, turned the yellowing pages to "Moriturus" and found, to my delight, that I was wrong.  Dead wrong.


If I could have
   Two things in one:
The peace of the grave,
   And the light of the sun;

My hands across
   My thin breast-bone,
But aware of the moss
   Invading the stone,

Aware of the flight
   Of the golden flicker
With his wing to the light;
   To hear him nicker

And drum with his bill
   On the rotted willow;
Snug and still
   On a gray pillow

Deep in the clay
   Where digging is hard,
Out of the way,–
   The blue shard

Of a broken platter–
   If I might be
Insensate matter
   With sensate me

Sitting within,
   Harking and prying,
I might begin
   To dicker with dying.

For the body at best
   Is a bundle of aches,
Longing for rest;
   It cries when it wakes

"Alas, 'tis light!"
   At set of sun
"Alas, 'tis night,
   And nothing done!"

Death, however,
   Is a spongy wall,
Is a sticky river,
   Is nothing at all.

Summon the weeper,
   Wail and sing;
Call him Reaper,
   Angel, King;

Call him Evil
   Drunk to the lees,
Monster, Devil–
   He is less than these.

Call him Thief,
   The Maggot in the Cheese,
The Canker in the Leaf–
   He is less than these.

Dusk without sound,
   Where the spirit by pain
Uncoiled, is wound
   To spring again;

The mind enmeshed
   Laid straight in repose,
And the body refreshed
   By feeding the rose–

These are but visions;
   These would be
The grave's derisions,
   Could the grave see.

Here is the wish
   Of one that died
Like a beached fish
   On the ebb of the tide:

That he might wait
   Till the tide came back,
To see if a crate,
   Or a bottle, or a black

Boot, or an oar,
   Or an orange peel
Be washed ashore . . . .
   About his heel

The sand slips;
   The last he hears
From the world's lips
   Is the sand in his ears.

What thing is little?–
   The aphis hid
In a house of spittle?
   The hinge of the lid

Of the spider's eye
   At the spider's birth?
"Greater am I
   By the earth's girth

"Than Mighty Death!"
   All creatures cry
That can summon breath–
   And speak no lie.

For he is nothing;
   He is less
Than Echo answering

Less than the heat
   Of the furthest star
To the ripening wheat;
   Less by far,

When all the lipping
   Is said and sung,
Than the sweat dripping
   From a dog's tongue.

This being so,
   And I being such,
I would liever go
   On a cripple's crutch,

Lopped and felled;
   Liever be dependent
On a chair propelled
   By a surly attendant

With a foul breath,
   And be spooned my food,
Than go with Death
   Where nothing good,

Not even the thrust
   Of the summer gnat,
Consoles the dust
   For being that.

Needy, lonely,
   Stitched by pain,
Left with only
   The drip of the rain

Out of all I had;
   The books of the wise,
Badly read
   By other eyes,

Lewdly bawled
   At my closing ear;
Hated, called
   A lingerer here–

Withstanding Death
   Till Life be gone,
I shall treasure my breath,
   I shall linger on.

I shall bolt my door
   With a bolt and a cable;
I shall block my door
   With a bureau and table;

With all my might
   My door shall be barred.
I shall put up a fight,
   I shall take it hard.

With his hand on my mouth
   He shall drag me forth,
Shrieking to the south
   And clutching at the north.

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