I Don’t Know What You Do Exactly When Someone Dies

Vincent
Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

XVIII
Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Gazing upon him now, severe and dead,
It seemed a curious thing that she had lain
Beside him many a night in that cold bed,
And that had been which would not be again.
From his desirous body the great heat
Was gone at last, it seemed, and the taut nerves
loosened forever.  Formally the sheet
Set forth for her today those curves
And lengths familiar as the bedroom door.
She was as one who enters, sly and proud,
To where her husbands speaks before a crowd,
And sees a man she never saw before –
The man who eats his victuals at her side,
Small, and absurd, and hers: for once, not hers,
unclassified.

      .                   .Finis


Reading the sonnets contained within Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree, it is hard to reconcile the timeline of when they were penned to the content.   Edna St. Vincent Millay published them in 1923, several years before she met and wed her husband and more than 20 years before a sequence of deaths of men she loved would begin to surround her like a shroud. I am not one to investigate literary criticism, which ties all kinds of obscure politics and literary references to lines of poetry.  I know that is what great poets do,  they write literary criticism, they read literary criticism, they translate other great poets from other languages and they write poetry with depth so literary critics have something to do.  But I am not a great poet.  I am consumer of poetry and as I have stated before, I approach poetry with the same approach I drink wine,  I consume what I like, regardless of what other people think or the gravitas it has received.

There are seventeen sonnets in the sequence from Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree that deal with Death, using the view point of a wife watching and helping her husband die. Vincent constructed these sonnets slightly different than her previous work, but the construction in my mind is not intent on making a statement on Feminism as much as they fit the disjointed nature of the subject matter – death.  I do believe that great poets and novelists are able to create something in words that is entirely more real than the life in which they live.  These sonnets are written in third person, not first person and by doing so, they are not autobiographical, but at the same time they are chillingly personal.

The first sonnet in the sequence tells the story of many marriages, one that has subsided in working like a marriage should, but there is still a kind of connection with a history of love that cannot ever completely unchain one from the other.  The first lines speaks volumes of what has come and gone. And like most things in life, do not express the totality of the wife’s sentiments, which are flushed out in subsequent sonnets.

I
Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

So she came back into his house again.
And watched beside his bed until he died,
Loving him not all.  The winter rain
Splashed in the painted butter-tub outside,
Where once her red geraniums had stood,
Where still their rotted stalk were to be seen;
The thin log snapped; and she went out for wood,
Bareheaded, running the few steps between
The house and shed; there, from the sodden eaves
Blown back and forth on ragged ends of twine,
Saw the dejected creeping-jinny vine,
(And one, big aproned, blithe, with stiff blue sleeves
Rolled to the shoulder that warm day in spring,
Who planted seeds, musing ahead to their far blossoming).

XIV
Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

She had a horror he would die at night.
And sometimes when the light began to fade
She could not keep from noticing how white
The birches looked – and then she would be afraid,
Even with a lamp, to go about the house
And lock the windows; and as night wore on
Toward morning, if a dog howled, or a mouse
Squeaked in the floor, long after it was gone
Her flesh would sit awry on her.  By day
She would forget somewhat, and it would seem
A silly thing to go with just this dram
And get a neighbor to come at night and stay.
But it would strike her sometimes, making the tea:
She had kept that kettle boiling all night long,
for company. 


I have had more than my fair share of deaths in my circle of loved ones in the past year.  It can get to feel like death is ganging up on you.  And it has been interesting to watch how all impacted in various spheres of my life, have dealt with the grief and finality of change that death brings.  There is no one way to grieve and no right or wrong way to experience the loss of beloved ones and creatures in our lives.  Grief is entirely a personal experience best shared with others, even if it feels awkward.  In a recent conversation with someone who has experienced a bucketful of tragedy and loss in a short period of time, she stated it astutely, “I did the best that I could.”  Vincent channels that sense of being lost and doing the best you can in the final sonnet I will share from this sequence.


XVI
Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

The doctor asked what she wanted done
With him, that could not lie there many days,
and she was shocked to see how life goes on
Even after death, in irritating ways;
And mused how if he had not died at all
‘Twould have been easier – then there need not be
The stiff disorder of a funeral
Everywhere, and the hideous industry,
And crowds of people calling her by name
And questioning her, she’d never seen before,
But only watching by his bed once more
And sitting silent if a knocking came . . .
She said at length, feeling the doctor’s eyes,
“I don’t know what you do exactly when a person dies.”