But I could hear her voice still ringing lyrically in my head.
“Love is not all: It is not meat nor drink
nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;…”
I found the poem about a year or so after beginning lessons on the alto sax. It had been set to music. The sound was so hauntingly beautiful that I set out to learn to play it. Since I still didn’t have as much control over the sounds I could make at first, I had to transpose some of the passages that were outside my range at the time.
Like a lot of kids, I was channeled into music against my will. I’m grateful that my parents insisted that I “take up” an instrument as I went into middle school, or junior high school as it was called way back then. But I was terrible and hated to practice. I even took private lessons from an “older” Italian teacher, who had an accent and said I had to “have a patience.” I still remember Mr Giamarco, although our trumpet lessons were over 50 years ago.
“Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;…”
I smile wondering what he, Mr Jones and Mr Rocky, my junior and senior high school band instructors, would think of me trying to learn to play the saxophone in my mid 60s. Mr Rocky used to get so exasperated with the band and would say that we were like a chain, no better than our weakest link. I always knew he had me in mind. And he did. One time we came to a “halt” on the 40 rather than 50 yard line where he had his pedestal set up… oh, well.
Edna St Vincent Millay was born in 1892, the same year as my maternal grandmother. Ms Millay grew up in poverty, but her mother read from Shakespeare and Milton to her three daughters. Her mother also encouraged her girls to be ambitious and self-sufficient, teaching them an appreciation of music and literature from an early age. The poet Richard Wilbur asserted, “She wrote some of the best sonnets of the century.”
“Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;…”
And it is to wonderment that her 14-line sonnet of love and loss has been set to music. In my own “difficult hour” of need, she introduced the sonnet form to this once young man with newness and freshness. Her early notoriously Bohemian life had always appealed to me. She lived in a nine-foot-wide attic and wrote anything she could find an editor willing to accept. She and the other writers of Greenwich Village were, according to Millay herself, “very, very poor and very, very merry.”
And why now does another ghost from my past haunt me still, one lost so long ago for no apparent reason? The music helps somewhat, although I don’t pretend to really understand it. I love knowing that I can breathe into a mouthpiece, move my fingers, and produce such lovely sounds. And the sounds have meaning beyond what I can say.
“Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone…”
I don’t know exactly how I lost her or perhaps she lost me, but there was a time I didn’t even know we were no longer in the same room. When I finally looked up to catch her eye, she was no where to be seen. Just like that… gone.
When I saw Michael Caine in Alfie when it first came out in 1966, I was enchanted by the seduction scene when he’s invited up to “her” apartment and asked, “What kind of music do you like,” and he replied, “Anything with a sax.” It took me a few years to find my way to the sax, but I got there.
“It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release.
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,…”
I’ve asked myself and others, but mostly myself, why some of the ones we love just vanish. There’s all the obvious reasons, but they leave me empty at best. She taught me to dance, to enjoy milk shakes, to skate, and to catch a hard grounder to third. I taught her that someone out there loved her.
“I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.”
What’s it all about, Alfie?