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“I’m burning my candle at both ends. It will not last the night. But, oh, my foes, and, ah, my friends. It gives a lovely light!”
These words are by poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), the subject of the fascinating best-selling biography of Millay, “Savage Beauty,” by Nancy Milford (Random House). Her poetry — touching, independent, light, feminist, sardonic — is once again reaching new, younger, audiences, many LGBT.
My acquaintance with her poetic gifts began with the sonnets. When I was getting over my first “big affair” I memorized Millay’s “Time does not bring relief/ All you have lied who told me time would ease me of my pain./ I miss him in the weeping of the rain/ I want him in the shrinking of the tide.”
Pain indeed. I was 23 and into my third year of a rewarding affair when I was dumped by my partner Ernie for a soldier on leave he met named Joe. As a keepsake memento Ernie gave me a two-record LP recording of Tchiakovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty Ballet.” I never played it.
Soon I met new friends at the Woodward Bar: Tom, Paul and Jonya, each of whom I found out was a bona fide candle queen. My first dinner in their company was midsummer. It could just as well have been Christmas for all the flickering-fairy, highlighted enchantment that welcomed me.
I think I counted three dozen candles of varying sizes, shapes, scents in strategic places of the living room. The effect was wonderful, but I began to worry. Was a group seduction planned? Was all this flicker and flame-flutter to enhance the taste of mediocre food? (Another potato-chip tuna casserole!) We’re we going to have a special rosary?
The simple truth was that these guys loved candles. Jonya, who was Dutch, took pride in a family heirloom, once hidden during the Nazi occupation of his country. He called the silver candle holder a “SHANdalabra,” which made his lover Paul smile indulgently. (Jonya was also given to saying, “Vell, Paul, I yust jurn for you.”)
I think I saw Jonya genuflect as he lit the candles gracing the dining table. A carpenter by trade, his rough hands lovingly arranged flowers as well, of which there was also an abundance that festive night.
Tom, who was with Paul before Jonya (and the son of a Detroit precinct police captain) took pleasure in an elaborate dime store-bought fountain placed near the apartment entrance. He called it “Miss Trevi.” Lady T held plants, glass beads, ice cubes, gold fish. The color of the water varied from day to day, frequently augmented by leftover Manhattans and red pitless cherries.
Little wonder that Miss Trevi gurgled and occasionally burped and wheezed. Compliments given to this bubbling contraption usually resulted in amply free-poured drinks by proud-owner, would-be bartender Tom.
Alone in my cluttered art studio these days I often light a candle and watch the shadows dance softly, perhaps sadly, on my wall. Images of the past appear, wink at me and vanish. 60 years ago.
Ernie lives in Florida. Paul has been married for 50 years to Susan, “an understanding wife.” Jonya died of a heart attack aboard ship during a return visit to Amsterdam decades ago. Tom, who in 1972 was told that because he had an abused pancreas his next drink would “be it” sadly ignored the warning. (This PG is my votive candle.)
Me? I’m still burning my own votive candle at both ends. It still gives a lovely light. Of sorts. But, if you really must know the honest truth, well, my wick has somehow grown shorter.