What lips my lips have kissed…
When I was a sex-nut back in my 20’s and 30’s, and going through relationships (real, and imagined) like they were handfuls of popcorn endlessly pulled from a bottomless bag at a summer blockbuster – I knew – for I had read – that the show doesn’t go on forever.
I was as consumed with books in those days as much as I was with ass, and I had read Miller, and Thompson, and Elliot; I had that summer where I read all the Russians; and then I found Kundera, and Dillard, and Marquez, and I heard what they all had to say. And they all said the same thing – the same thing that wise people have been saying since before Socrates and Lao Tzu – telling me of that fundamental notion that no matter how much you feast on life, no matter how fast and how far and how hard you travel, you still can’t have it all – not in this lifetime, not in 50 lifetimes – because there is just too fucking much to have!
And at some point in your life you will realize – that there is not a goddamned thing you can do about that fact.
The first time I read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What lips my lips have kissed” I was only 25. I knew shit about poetry – (I could never seem to get the rhythm, and 99% of whatever it was that poets were trying to say to me went right over my head (and still does) – but with Millay, the 25-year-old Romantic within me immediately pined to be 50-years-old, and heroically striding across the universe carrying the melancholia and the nostalgia that was so majestically displayed in that beautiful poem on my proud sun-dappled world-weary shoulders.
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 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.
And now, at fifty, there is in this poem all the melancholy and all of the nostalgia that I had ever imagined there to be in this time in my life. For the essence of the poem is entirely true. “What lips my lips have kissed, and where and why…I have forgotten…and the rain is full of ghosts tonight…and in my heart there stirs a quiet pain…for unremembered lads that not again…will turn to me at midnight with a cry.“
But there is something more – something I have no word for – that sense of how fleeting it all is – and that you still know at fifty what that magic feeling is – of having been right there in the very centre of the game – but you have no way of grasping it again.
(And if you don’t know what the centre of that particular game was – or were too afraid to go there and play – and preferred to watch from the sidelines – here is some John Lee Hooker to express for you what it was we were after in those days…)
The players move on. Get married. Have kids. Slow down. Grow fat.
New players seamlessly take their place – new sets of spectators choose to merely watch from the sidelines.
So, I read Millay now, 25 years later, and I feel like I am pulling up ghosts and shadows and wisps of dreams of another life – another time in History.
Weird. When I was twenty-five, I couldn’t wait to be fifty.
Now, at fifty, I want another crack at being twenty-five.
(It’s a new game now. The game is post-modern. We sit and talk about “the game” and know we are talking about “the game”. No, the game is post-post-modern – we do nothing, because it’s all just a game, and we see the game on The Simpsons, and Bart and Lisa are laughing because they are playing The Game and Homer is frustrated because he doesn’t know what the game is, and is crying, because no one will tell him what the game is…cut to commercial.)