How the August Night

The town I grew up in sits on the shore of Long Island Sound in southern Connecticut. It's sleepy and fairly quiet for a good part of the year (or at least it was), but when summer comes, everything in it and about it comes to life.

It's perhaps because of that, and because I'm a July baby (the 6th, just like Dubya, Nancy Reagan, and Sly Stallone), that summer has always been my favorite season, and the one that seems to me the most mythic and full of possibility. I never learned to love the snow or the nostril-freezing temperatures of winter, and spring and fall always felt to me little more than the lead-in and end to summer, respectively. In June, July, and August, I was happiest and most at home in my life.

So when I first read Edna St. Vincent Millay's sonnet X, from Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree, it made me feel giddy and lachrymose and punched in the gut and hopeful, all at the same time.

Many of Millay's other poems got me, too--my Auntie Paula gave me a book of them, which I still have, spine broken at the pages I read the most, full of notes and stars next to the pieces I liked best, even a few pencil marks on sonnets whose meter I tried to annotate with that odd series of swoops and dashes. But Ungrafted Tree X was (and remains) the only poem I could recite by heart.

What grabbed me was not only the fact that the poem is fairly exploding with ripe summer imagery--which, in itself, was (and is) often enough to win me over--but also its sly, quiet promise that sometimes, when the moon is right and the crickets loud enough and the circumstances sufficiently mysterious to invite no questioning, sometimes you find what you're looking for.

That appealed to me in an immense and unshakeable way when I spent my summers in Niantic (as my journals from that time can attest). And even now, when my summers are windy and chilly and fog-bound and my skepticism is sometimes sharp enough to poke holes in most notions of romantic promise, Millay's poem holds out a sense of hope like an outstretched hand and a swim-perfect moonlit lake.

Plus, the last line is a kicker.

She had forgotten how the August night
Was level as a lake beneath the moon,
In which she swam a little, losing sight
Of shore; and how the boy, who was at noon
Simple enough, not different from the rest,
Wore now a pleasant mystery as he went,
Which seemed to her an honest enough test
Whether she loved him, and she was content.
So loud, so loud the million crickets' choir...
So sweet the night, so long-drawn-out and late...
And if the man were not her spirit's mate,
Why was her body sluggish with desire?
Stark on the open field the moonlight fell,
But the oak tree's shadow was deep, and black, and secret as a well.

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