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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 bisexual poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), the subject of a fascinating best-selling biography called “Savage Beauty,” by Nancy Milford (Random House).
Millay’s poetry — touching, independent, light, feminist, sardonic — is once again reaching new, younger audiences, many LGBTQ.
My acquaintance with her poetic gifts began with her sonnets. When I was getting over my first “big gay affair,” I memorized Millay’s words:
“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 fourth year of a rewarding affair when I was dumped by my partner Ernie for a soldier on leave named Joe (Ernie and I were working at Discount Records in downtown Detroit and Joe was a hunky customer).
Soon, I met new friends at Detroit’s Woodward Bar, circa 1959: Tom, Paul and Jonya, each of whom I found out was a bona fide candle queen.
My first dinner in their enlightened company was midsummer. It could just as well have been Christmas for all the flickering-fairy, highlighted enchantment I walked into.
I think I counted a 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 flare to enhance the taste of mediocre food (another tuna-potato-chip casserole!)? Were we going to have an impromptu rosary?
The simple truth is that these guys loved candles. Jonya, who was Dutch, took pride in a family silver heirloom, once hidden during the Nazi occupation of his country. He called the candle holder a “SHANdalabra,” which made his lover Paul smile indulgently.
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 on display 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 in the living room. He called it Miss Trevi. It held plants, glass beads, ice cubes, gold fish. The water’s color varied from party to party, augmented by leftover Manhattans.
Little wonder that Miss Trevi gurgled, occasionally burped and wheezed. Compliments given to this bubbling contraption usually resulted in amply free-poured drinks by proud-owner Tom.
Alone in my cluttered art studio these days, I often light a candle and watch shadows dance softly, silently, so sadly empty, on my walls. Images of the past appear, wink and vanish.
Paul has been married almost 50 years to Susan, “a wonderfully understanding wife.” Jonya died of a heart attack aboard ship during a return visit to Amsterdam. Tom, who in 1972 was told that because he had an abused pancreas his next drink “would be it,” ignored the warning. He was 36.
Ernie and I are in touch. He lives in New York, the president of a successful video arts recording company. His third partner for over 40 years, Tom Stewart, died a year ago. Tom was a give-from-the-heart kind of guy.
Me? I’m still burning my candle at both ends. And — if you really must know — my vanilla-flavored wick has waxed somewhat shorter. But it flickers ever so brightly. Now and then.