Millay’s Hair

Ann Townsend

New York Public Library, Edna St. Vincent Millay archives

Because Norma saved even the grocery lists,
              it was no surprise to find a lock of hair

                            coiled and glued loosely into the scrapbook,
crimped and rusty, more weird

and alive than any calling card or photograph,
              letter, erotic or otherwise, sweeter

                            than the candy kisses fixed upon the page.
I shouldn’t have touched it, but in those days

I was always hungry. Despite the rare books
              librarian lurking, I set my thumb against it.

                            Weightless, dusty, it warmed at my touch.
By 1949, all the grocery lists affirmed

the same fixations: Liverwurst, Olives, Cookies, Scotch. 
              Liverwurst, Olives, Cookies, Scotch, penciled

                            on squares of insipid paper. By 1950,
unsteady on her feet; by year’s end, dead at the foot

of the stairs. As I placed the book of relics
              back into its archival box, a single

                            copper wire fell from the page,
bright tendril on the table. I lifted it,

casket of DNA, protein, lipids, and still Titian red.
              Really, was I wrong to swallow it?  
 

More by Ann Townsend

The Coronary Garden, section 6

Despair needles you with its whisper,
it is agnostic, it believes in irony,
like a fly’s buzz it is perceptions, a busy

blood clot that says alive, alive.

I’m not the stopped motion, the straight line out.
Your garlands are "convivial, festival, sacrificial,
nuptual, honorary, funebrial."

That spring, when we strolled in the rain,

you bent to the stone wall’s alyssum—
bloom, stem, and root, you tore a handful free.
Against your mouth the petals

were a mass of stars winking out.

A Unified Berlin

The Junior Minister waved a hand
                          toward the courtyard where, he said,

                                       Goering’s private lion used to live.

                         With him we climbed Parliament’s steps,

walls pockmarked still with bullet holes. 
                         In the conference room the Social Democrats

                                     passed trays of petit fours and coffee.

                         We were perhaps insufficient, he said.

His voice, uninflected: they shipped
                         my father to Stalingrad. Forty days

                                      and dead. In the room,

                         the transcriptionist, the translator,

and security stationed against
                         the wall. Some time passed.

                                     In East Germany, he said, at least

                         it was always terrible. Bad luck, he said,


to be on that side of the wall. Even
                         the apples were poison. We were

                                     to understand this was a little joke. 

                         He brought the teacup to his mouth,

but did not drink. His fingernails
                         were tapered and very clean.

                                     When you are the victim, he said,

it doesn’t matter who is killing you.

Related Poems

Landscape with Happily Ever After

Near midnight I’m held
hostage to the hazy upshot in the corner

velvet near a laced up tree and curious how I got here.

What a crowd! I think
and I think I should hoard my stash in my shoe.


Did you catch the census takers trying to autocorrect
the shelterbelt out of my history

when meanwhile

I’ve been fending off elements
since I first showed up at this latitude so

I don’t trust easy.


In 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
you ask me outside

where the music dims
against the complicated bramble

and I love how the moon

is gilding the rusted basketball hoop in the driveway
and bouncing off the sheen of the rubber tree

and onto this fable
in a city that bleeds its saline soil

into another difficult year.