In Which We Keep Missing Littlefinger For Some Reason

The One True King


I really feel for King Tommen. He’s sitting in his breakfast nook, waiting to dig into an adorable plate of corn and eggs, when his wife comes in to complain about her homosexual relative’s detention. These are the kinds of everyday problems I am forced to fix, but I do not like to talk when I am eating.

There’s a lot of issues with our country that need to be solved right now. A major city is self-destructing in front of our eyes, and the president is like, “Yeah, I’m not going over there.” Cersei Lannister would send an expeditionary force to start another, more cohesive riot to overwhelm the first one.

Why didn’t they just sail to Mereen to begin with? Nevermind.

Freddie Gray is the only the latest person to die in police custody. This has happened for thousands of years and it will probably happen again. It doesn’t matter the reason for the expected disorder – keeping the peace is the only reasonable job of the government. Leaders are more motivated by personal considerations: “Do you have any affection for me at all?” Margaery whines.

Barbara Bush never wore a wig, and I give her a lot of credit for that.

Between your wife, your mother and your city is a tough place to be. Barack’s mother lives in the White House. George W. Bush would sometimes get calls from his mom and Laura at the same time. Guess which one he took?

That was a trick question; he took whichever one I fucking told him to.

Of all the men to expose your breasts to… Samwell was right there, and he has been definitively friendzoned by Gilly.

Thrones is only a reflection of America, a satire becoming more prescient every time that Jon Snow refuses to have sex with someone. At other times in our history a religious revival has swept through the people. Unabashed belief is the only thing that can truly change a nation. The Gods of Westeros are as dead as the old dragons.

The Sand Snakes of Dorne really need to hit Talbot’s for some new outfits. Yikes.

Watching Stannis Baratheon get all soft about his daughter being poisoned with greyscale just reminds me of how much the temperament of a leader affects his followers. We require a true believer, not some tongue-in-cheek professor who tweets about watching Veep. We need a leader who can focus people on the world beyond the world.

Perhaps it is a bit early to be laying down my endorsement, but the most important thing we can have right now is a person who takes this country as seriously as I don’t. You can send Rand Paul and Martin O’Malley to the ruins of Valyria for all I care. The one true king is Littlefinger.

You just need to find the boy who loves greyscale, e.g. Bran. He can probably cure it in fact.

That guy looked so cute in the sept. This is a man who still lives in the past. He never forgets what happened to him. He’s tiny, but very rich. He has all the straight goss about Lyanna Stark and Aerys Targaryen. He alone can greenlight the Thrones prequel series where we can watch Ned Stark fall in love with the saucy mother of Jon Snow all over again.

I honestly don’t know why Littlefinger is being friendly to Sansa. (I became fully aroused when he told her, “You’ve learned to maneuver from the very best.”) He’s mentoring her before his return to King’s Landing in a most affecting way. Littlefinger’s plan is exciting, but I have serious concerns that the coming pairing of Jon Snow and Sansa will lead to them reflecting on the good old days where Robb hazed Bran by forcing him to masturbate Hodor to orgasm.

So many regrets. I wonder who will play you in the prequel, maybe Harry Styles?

A society that kills off its oldest and weakest members is not one that I want to be a part of. Unless that includes Bran. That guy gets to draw a paycheck for an entire season and he doesn’t even have to have a crow dream once. Fuck Bran.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.

“Lavender Philosophy” – Jenny Lysander (mp3)

“Under the Willow Tree” – Jenny Lysander (mp3)

In Which We Have Nothing To Give But Regrets

enjoying the road


Owner of the Paris bookstore Shakespeare in Company, Sylvia Beach served, at different times, as James Joyce’s agent, publisher and friend. He was very brusque with her, showing no special kindness, but this was hardly unique for Joyce. Although we imagine the lives of certain well-known authors to be financially solvent, Joyce struggled for many years up until the publication of Ulysses. These abridged letters from Joyce to Beach in the 1920s prove this to be true.

October 30 1922

You already know the news about my eyes. For the past nine or ten days we have had filthy weather. I can do nothing. To face a long railway journey then the usual two hours a day wait in Dr Borsch’s waiting room would finish me off.

August 29 1922

I hope you had a pleasant holiday. Mine has been a complete fiasco.

Will you thank Miss Moschos for sending me the cocaine. My son will be in Paris about the 8th or 9th of this month. I expect his first need will be for some money. If there is any to my credit since I left, I may advance him what he wants.

James Joyce 


July 12 1923

Will you please order the following books (American) for me:

1) English Speech and Literature by E. Vizetelly

2) Ireland’s Part in the Making of Britain by O.J. Fitzpatrick

Perhaps Brentano’s has them.

1) New Book of Kings by Morrison Davidson

2) The Complete Peerage (8 vols) edited by Lord Howard de Walden

A dreadful thunderstorm passed by here on Monday. Luckily we got only the fringe of it – quite enough – but London was terrified.

March 24 1924

During lunch two people sent me round copies of Ulysses to sign. I declined to do so, saying I should first have the conesent of my publisher. So if they ring you up please ‘probe’ their case. I did not flatly refuse however.


April 25 1924

With this is a photograph of a portrait of my father, commissioned by me a year ago from Mr Patrick Tuohy at Power’s suggestion. It has caused a great deal of talk as you will see by the paper enclosed. I like it very much.

I only work 3 hours a day.

July 4 1924

I cannot even find a sheet of notepaper.

October 6 1924

I see that the book I asked you to get is out. Medieval Woman by Eileen Power.

Can you please lend me your Treatise on Glaucoma. I want to look up something in it before I see Borsch tonight.

Can you please put one hundred francs into an envelope and give it to my wife?

With kindest regards,

Sincerely yours,

November 8 1924

I have been sitting here for a good quarter of an hour wondering where the water is.

Can you please put a hundred francs in an envelope and give it to my wife?

October 19 1925

For goodness’ sake will you please take charge of this fellow. I cannot stand any more of him. I don’t know if I have corrected all of his errors and omissions. Anyhow please keep him in the cage until called for.


August 24 1926

A curious thing. I was sitting on a rock under a phare a few sunsets ago when a child, a barefoot girl of about four, clambered up the slope and insisted on filling my pockets with tiny shells from her apron. I told her in Flemish (I have now taken 43 lessons in it!) that I did not want them but she went on all the same. It was only after I had given her a coin and she had gone that I remembered the lighthouse of Patrick’s papa in Boulogne and Caligula’s order to his soldiers at the tower to gather up the seashells.

September 16 1926

Just a view from this interesting old town where we are staying a couple of days.

I spent a great deal of time on the piece for Wyndham Lewis. I don’t suppose his review pays anything.

Do not mention the matter unless he does.

May 12 1927

Please tell the Humanist I have nothing to give but regrets.

“I Do Not Feel Like Being Good” – Ryan Adams (mp3)

In Which We Steal Through The Blinds Of A Stranger

Ben’s Death


Midwest summers in my grandparents house were hot and leaden with the smell of perfumed soaps and car oil. It was summer when Mom told me of her younger brother Ben’s death and handed me a photo from the mantelpiece. It was encased in a frame, and inside was a tiny unfamiliar body with hands smaller than my eight year old mitts. “It was a farming accident. Your grandmother never recovered,” she told me. We didn’t speak of him, or my grandmother, again. Idle after university I began to resist this falling away. I hungered for a history proven elusive with a ferocity that perhaps matched my grandmother’s hunger to disappear.

I imagined my grandparents’ world mirroring the seasoned black and white photos on our mantelpiece. The light hit sternly from above, giving them a ghostly hollow cheeked conviction. My mother rarely told stories of their lives, sound bites not to be elicited like announcements made over an airport loudspeaker. Their history felt fragile to me even as a child.

I followed my grandmother to New York; I imagined Pakistani cab drivers struggling to understand her sharp Norwegian consonants. It was here that I found myself, with a question more profound than its answer: a shoddy apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, trying to piece together an old narrative in a city pulsing with forward momentum. It was 2011; I was broke, aimless and lonely.

I had picked up a job at a bar in the East Village. Our busy season was ending with the dying of summer, as was my patience for sleeveless regulars. It was here I met Sophie. She came in for a job application but was quickly engaged in a fatal shouting match with the owner Lucia. Despite a crumpled resume in her hand, she seemed to be there for the fight. She plopped down in front of me and casually tossed peanuts into her mouth. Pulling me in by the shoulder, she whispered, “Don’t worry, I always carry a gun.” It’s laughably absurd in retrospect, but irony had died with the Bush era, so I said nothing and watched her kick a chair over on her way out.

Much later Sophie told me she dreamt about that day. Throwing back the rest of the peanuts she had taken me by the hand. The back patio opened up into an endless beach and we ran through a landmine field of cruddy drunk kids sprawled on the sand. Together we blew away in an overturned beach umbrella. We shared that desire to take sail; I was searching for something, while she was hoping to lose herself. From that first meeting I recall her tiny hands, fingernails filled with dirt, as though she clawed her way out of bed each morning with orphic desperation. I was not alone in my desire for her. She seemed destined for a great story, the femme fatale caged on the island of sirens.

My love of her was amorphous. I straddled a tightrope of detachment and lonely urges of wanting to belong. I needed her most when New York felt very far from the Midwest. I remember my mother calling me from the road. Her sister had skipped town leaving her five kids in a series of destructive events. She had gone to help out in her absence. I knew she wouldn’t tell those kids the truth. These secrets live behind her smoke colored eyes. “The rain is coming down hard now honey, I’m going to have to let you go,” she said. I knew she was crying. She dropped off the line.

I had forgotten where I was going; I dialed Sophie’s number. Ben’s death seemed to surface like a toxic oil spill. Without a sound, the tragedy had seeped into the drinking water of the whole family.

I chose to stay in New York through what I think of in hindsight as the lonely years. One year became two. I was still on the hunt for my grandmother’s story, imbued by a tragedy I wanted desperately to understand. Sophie and I would walk through her old neighborhood breathing life into corner stores and old shoe repairmen who might have once shared her space. I was unhappy and empty-handed, but Sophie seemed to tolerate my quiet spells, if not feast on my despondency.

We began moving in the same circles, her role in them much more glamorous than mine. My last spring in New York, though I did not know it yet, was anachronistic, marking the end of so many things. On this particular night I found myself at a going away party, an occasion that turned me into a cool spectator of my own sensations. I watched myself make grand plans I knew would never be kept, trips to places like Geneva for jazz, Brazil for some party. Youth afforded us these fantasies; we seemed to have all the time in the world to break them.

Sophie arrived with Martine, her boyfriend du jour. I thought of all her boyfriends this way, a sarcasm truly born from a jealous longing. It was the kind of evening you could feel; change hung in the air like words unsaid. At the time it felt like a beginning, but it is always harder to sense the ends of things.

I had been skirting around the party all night, my third eye on the comedy show Martine and Sophie were putting on. Martine would make a crude joke and Sophie would double over or throw her head back- the mating dance. I hated this party. I lost sight of them and slipped to the bathroom locking the door behind me. I fell against it, closing my eyes against my reflection. I felt suffocated. Every time I retold the narrative of my life, I changed. I was whirling fast, falling away from anything that I knew, from the girl I was when I moved here. Leaving this party was my only option. I opened the door and ran straight into Sophie. Her pupils were dilated and sweat collected on her hairline. She cornered me in the bathroom doorway.

“You’re in love with me,” her lip snarled back in a mock smile. “You are tragically trapped, admit it.” She loved that word, spitting it out: tragic.

I had told her once that she was robbing it of its theatrical qualities. “This isn’t all a fucking act?” she had replied.

In the doorway, Sophie kept speaking, but I felt a strange quiet cloak us. Tiny flecks of dust floated between us, illuminated by the ambient light coming from the open door behind me. The patina warped her voice.

I saw myself, years later recalling this moment, predicting its nostalgic powers. My pretend future self couldn’t remember any of the words she spoke, but through the dust I could acutely see tiny drops of perspiration delicately balanced on her raised collarbone. They were lined up like dominoes, waiting for the impetus to join forces and take the great plunge to the floor.

We stopped speaking after that night. I didn’t feel resentment, and remember that moment as the critical push. I left New York a month later.

A few weeks ago I received a surprisingly early morning phone call from an old New York friend Dan. Sophie had died. “She had leukemia. I thought you should know,” Dan said. There was silence on the line. “She always cared for you.”

We look for a history to call our own; we try and cling to something bigger than the life in front of us. Bigger than pulling on a short skirt for a shift at an East Village bar, bigger than waking up to 6 a.m. to sunlight stealing through the blinds of a stranger’s apartment, bigger than the mingling smell of urine and seaweed salad at the bottom of the subway stairs. We risk forgetting that we are floating through our own story.

Maureen O’Brien is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She twitters here and you can find her blog here.

Photographs by Thomas Bollier.

maureen author photo

“Marionette” – Antonia (mp3)

In Which This Is The Only Way We Feel We Can Respond

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to or by dropping us a note at our tumblr.


My friend Mary thinks of herself as being very politically involved. She has driven to New York to ‘occupy’ Wall Street, and she is very vocal with her opinions about the police. One of my other friends frequently disparages her as a ‘white knight.’ In the past I have defended Mary from this designation, but she seems to struggle to talk about anything except what is going on in the news. To be clear, she does ask other people their opinion and I would not call her dogmatic at all, but there does seem to be an excessive focus on current events. Am I wrong to not want to hear about this all the time?

Greg S.

just plain afraid to fail

Dear Greg,

Given that even David Simon is tired of the riots at this time, you can’t simply be dismissed as putting your head in the sand.

There was actually a great Robbie Williams song about this. It was called “Jesus in a Camper Van.” It was about even the most hardened disciple of creed needing time to relax and unwind, and in this way, it was quite a prescient tune.

Then again (sorry!) there was a time in recent history, I guess all of history might qualify actually, where the idea of staying out of the fray of political events was impossible, and usually akin to allowing them to happen. One of the great forgotten things is that there was a healthy anti-war movement for World War II. Of course, those people were involved in the politics of their time, they were just on the completely wrong side of them.

So Mary encourages a bunch of rioters. I don’t think this makes her a white knight or a bad person. Possibly if you have a different opinion you can express it to her. This isn’t the era to tiptoe around anything. Subtlety died in the sixteenth century.


Do I need an exposed brick wall in my apartment to be happy? I was never one of those “those girls” but now I’m having trouble sleeping because I can’t find an available apartment with exposed brick. 

Rachel T.

hard to say mia nguyen

Dear Rachel,

Obviously you don’t need exposed brick to be happy. Instead, you need:

  1. Cheap kohl

  2. Not to be killed by your parents for being a girl

  3. A guaranteed spot in Heaven

  4. A cure for the plague

  5. A receding hairline

  6. A large butt

  7. A 14-inch waist

  8. The right to vote

  9. A husband, preferably one with a good job so that you can stay home to cook and take care of your 3 children

  10. Blond hair and blue eyes

  11. A bra to burn

  12. A house in the suburbs with a white picket fence

  13. An executive-level job

  14. The ability to juggle it all

  15. A female friend with whom you never speak of men

  16. Great light in your bathroom for selfies

  17. A weekly manicure and wax

  18. A light-hearted abortion

  19. Emotional resilience, sexual aggression, maternal instinct

  20. A great pair of jeans

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.

“L.O.L.” – Margaret (mp3)

“I Get Along” – Margaret (mp3)

You’re the Woman


The Avengers: Age of Ultron
dir. Joss Whedon
141 minutes

Chris Evans’ upper body looks like the crest of some unearthly plateau. He has no love interest in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, but sometimes you catch other people admiring his body, especially in comparison to their own dilapidated form. He is the kind of person who has to keep shifting his own gaze, because he is never quite sure who might be addressing him.

Robert Downey Jr.’s facial hair is beginning to resemble the vaguely ancient locks of Father Time. He chooses his roles a lot more carefully than some, but playing assholes has a way of aging a person – Jamie Dornan is somewhere sobbing about this as we speak.

Since the producers did not want to deal with the particular headache that employing Gwyneth Paltrow entails, Downey Jr. seems extremely lonely, with his only friend being Mark Ruffalo. This being the case, he tries to create an android friend for himself.

Paul Bettany ends up being that android. His body is hidden in a velvety, Jack-Kirby ludicrous suit and the strange modulation of his voice into a sound that is unmistakably Wimbledon. In that film, he pursued Kirsten Dunst as a human woman, a far more unrealistic plot than occurs anywhere in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. “This makes no sense!” one of the Avengers exclaims at one point.

Mark Ruffalo is the most attractive of the group. Despite being fifteen years younger, Scarlett Johansson is attracted to his ansible-shaped penis. She turns him into a larger being when she is tired of looking at the gee-willikers mannerisms that make him the lesser evil when it comes to the men of her social circle. These guys are all becoming too old for her.

Jeremy Renner seems like he loathes all of these people. He is not permitted to banter with Chris Evans about their leader’s considerable rigidity; he is very lonely spending time with the others because he misses his wife (Linda Cardellini) and two children. Renner is a member of this posse purely to provide income for his family, and it seems obvious that Downey Jr. gives him a large salary. The main perk is a certain amount of discretion should he want to cheat on his wife with Scarlett or the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).


Whedon thought it was a good idea to give Olsen and her very fast brother Aaron Taylor-Johnson slight European accents. They are so distracted we barely notice the two are not extras on a set. Olsen’s slightly upturned nose and whining cheekbones serve to put everyone else in a slightly better light.

In order to replace the aging older members, newer actors have been added to the group. Most are weirdly reminiscent of past individuals, making these people a sort of family which does not actually care for each other. By the end of the film they are all living together in a residence in upstate New York, where their nonprofit organization receives tremendous tax breaks from local and federal authorities.

There is a retreat from things here, a reluctance to group themselves with the rest that comes off, yes, a bit snobbish, but also somewhat stodgy, as if they simply cannot handle the vagaries of living in the world. Ruffalo and Johanssen plan to go off and hide somewhere, and he even suggests leaving the group as they are attempting to battle an army of androids in a small Eastern European city. None of them actually wants to be there.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.



“Huller” – Adrian Northover & Daniel Thompson (mp3)

“Buhrstone” – Adrian Northover & Daniel Thompson (mp3)

In Which We Marry Margaery Tyrell At Our Leisure

Sex in the Final Hour


I have been to a lot of weddings. When I think back on my favorite ones, I remember Jeb Bush tonguing Eliot Weinberger’s balls after a chorus of “Feliz Navidad” and Donald Rumsfeld smashing a juicebox on a woman’s face when she called him “Little Terminator.” If I ever get married again, I am not serving alcohol at my wedding, because it only encourages people to think that they should be the center of attention. I have that honor.

It’s how Roger Ailes looks at a woman in power.

Tommen getting married and consummating his nuptials with a vaguely unwilling bride has already been thematically superseded by Amy Schumer’s Friday Night Lights parody. Tommen seems a little childish for his age; also I’m not sure why Maegary couldn’t just use a condom.

I actually give Tommen a lot of credit. A lot of men can’t perform in the final hour. I once tried to reach orgasm during the series finale of M.A.S.H. and all that came out was a mixture of semen, tears and ground-up Fruit Loops.

“We call that splooge, Young Tommen.”

Margaery couldn’t have ended up with a finer product of incest to be a product of whatever she has planned for him. I’m guessing it involves lipstick, a pig and her brother’s bloated member.

There’s no shame in birth control. The tradition of a nice condom on your wedding night was brought to Western civilization by the Chinese nobleman Jang Wao. Unfortunately, Game of Thrones has a strict no Asians policy. Even if they did cast someone of that ethnicity, it would likely be the guy from Lost and he would be eaten by Drogon within mere minutes.

When did he find the time to get highlights?

Watching Tyrion get kidnapped into yet another Odd Couple situation caused me to roll my eyes at length. “I’m bringing you to the Queen,” Mormont bleated. At this point Cersei would probably welcome Tyrion with open arms. But now, we have to have him advise Queen of the Dragons/Sarah Connor about the right table settings for state dinners.

Reunite the Lannisters! I hope that Cersei throws a hot bang at that cute Dr. Frankenstein wannabe. Maybe he could turn Tommen into a man or something like one.

He was probably going to have to play Dumbledore in the HP prequel, so this is a step up.

Jonathan Pryce at least brings more intrigue to the character of the High Sparrow, since you know for sure he will never display a penis, even as a show of charity to a homeless woman on the streets of King’s Landing. At least he makes a useful foil to Cersei, because the hammy, overplayed shit between Margaery and Cersei is getting on my nerves. There is no world where Cersei Lannister would not automatically destroy anyone who criticized her day-drinking.

Cersei’s wedding must have been quite the night. If I recall correctly Robert Baratheon drank himself into a distinct amalgam of gas and human being from all the kegs and hot peppers he consumed. Twyin Lannister really did not like his daughter in hindsight. It’s a shame she won’t be present for the ultimate GoT nuptials: the happy union of Sansa Stark and Ramsey Snow.

She really treasured that phallic object her dad gave her. Don’t worry. One of the Braavosi will lend you a cute pen you can keep in your purse.

Arya’s goodbye to Needle was perhaps the only moving part of this episode. I have had enough of her weirdly washing bodies and learning how she doesn’t need her name anymore. This is basically Going Clear all over again. I need to focus on the positive things: a wedding between two people who basically no one else would ever be interested in.

Here are some useful wedding tips for the ginger bride and her Winterfell psycho:

1. Whenever you move quickly in your wedding gown, you have to breathlessly hrter swish and sneak a humorous look at Roose Bolton.

2. Jam on everything: jam on chicken, jam on your bannermen, jam on toast, jam on Littlefinger’s tiny Mr. Finger, jam on your eunuch’s blank parts and jam on you.

3. All the bridesmaids must shout in unison, “Y’all know nothing Ramsay Snow jk!”

Kind of looks like the country club where I tied the knot with Lynne, except less ostentatious.

4. After the ceremony but before the reception, sneak in a hot sob in the underground cemetery where you recall how your dad’s sister was not too into Robert Baratheon either, and wasn’t there a storyline that kind of fell by the wayside about one of his illegitimate children?

5. At the moment of consummation, scream out for Brienne’s aid, and then when she arrives, take it back and subtly suggest she killed Renly Baratheon.

6. Invite Lady Stoneheart (R.I.P.)

shouldn’t she be happy to be free of her uncle? She can run to the north and have a weird on again, off-again relationship with her half-brother perhaps?

7. If a small shitling formerely known as Theon Greyjoy starts badmouthing the new love of your life, threaten to cut even more of his scenes from A Feast for Crows.

8. If you watch enough episodes of Bates Motel, maybe you’ll forget how bad this season is so far.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.

“Love Your Loved Ones” – Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers (mp3)

“Heart Gets Tough” – Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers (mp3)

In Which Edna St. Vincent Millay Stares Into The Abyss

th4ererhv great news

Worn Out


Dec. 31, 1940

Awoke 7:30, after untroubled night. Pain less than previous day.
7:35- Urinated- no difficulty or distress
7:40- 3/8 gr. M.S. {morphine shot} hypodermically, self-administered in left upper arm…
7:45-8- smoked cigarette (Egyptian) mouth burns from excessive smoking
8:15- Thirsty, went to the ice box for a glass of water, but no water there. Take can of beer instead which do not want. Headache, lassitude…
8:20- cigarette (Egyptian)
9:00- “
9:30- Gin Rickey (cigarette)
11:15- Gin Rickey
12:15- Martini (4 cigarettes)
12:45- 1/4 grain M.S. & cigarette
1.- Pain bad and also in lumbar region. no relief from M.S.

At age 48 – looks fading, youth fading, genius (she thought) also fading — the extravagant American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay found herself staring blankly into the abyss that had moved with her all her life.

Once she had written ecstatically of that “conscious void” (her first encounter: a passage of poetry from Romeo & Juliet when she was five years old), of both “the tangible radiance in which I stood” and “the edge of nausea” that bordered it. Once it had left her thrilled, transcendent, outside herself; the “radiance” and the “nausea” had been intertwined. But, at 48, interred at the farmhouse she and her husband had converted near the Berkshires, worn out by her lifelong hungers, that abyss was now dark to her — and it took it took two gin rickeys, a martini, eight cigarettes and several morphine shots, all before 1 p.m., to be able to face it.

All her life Millay sought wild moments of ecstasy to which she could submit herself fully and come undone. Her childhood in turn-of-the-century Camden, Maine had been provincial, but Millay — called “Vincent” by her mother and two sisters — was the product of a clan of fiercely independent, literary women who nourished the wildness and the ambition within her. Her mother Cora was a woman who had “dazed all her people” by divorcing her charming loafer of a husband and taking work as a nurse to support her daughters.

Cora loved music, books, poetry and — despite the family’s constant, visible poverty — fed her girls on the riches of her organ and her attic library. “Vincent” herself wrote poetry from a young age, gifting her mother with a handwritten collection of 61 poems titled The Poetical Works of Vincent Millay when she was 16.

In school, she was similarly extravagant, always a performer. She acted in all the school plays, gave piano recitals, edited the school newspaper. She was larger than life but not very popular: the girls thought “she was the type… to make a lot of almost nothing” (yesterday’s high school parlance, I suppose, for, she’s so fake!), and the boys actively made fun of her. She longed for escape, and she longed for a bigger stage.

a very bad match

For a while, she thought it was a man who would provide it. Her limits of her world seemed so small, even while eternity gaped within her, and the only rescue she could conceive took the shape of a man.  In the end, however, she made her escape with her own hands.

At age 20, her poem “Renascence” (“The world stands out on either side/No wider than the heart is wide; Above the world is stretched the sky,—/No higher than the soul is high.”) was selected as a finalist in the The Lyric Year, a significant contest of American poetry. She became a star, a bit of a cause célèbre since — as many people said, even in the pages of the New York Times and the Chicago Evening Post — her poem was far superior to the poems that had actually won.

She had been flirting madly, purposefully (via post) with the editor of The Lyric Year for the months leading up to the announcement of the winners, and her own sense of injustice at having been denied the prize was confirmed and amplified by the reaction of the public. But, like an American Idol runner up, she discovered that the real first prize wasn’t the putative one; it was celebrity itself — adulation, recognition, an adoring public. This hunger, once awakened, was to stay with her the rest of her life.

Things moved quickly, gloriously after that. A coterie of wealthy ladies took “Vincent” in hand. Deciding that it would be a good thing to educate her, they removed her from the rambles of the Maine coast and off to New York. They gave her cash, gifts (including shopping trips to Lord & Taylor, but also boxes of cast-off clothing), lots of life advice to temper their praise, and sent her to Vassar. Her patrons adored her, but they also wanted a piece of her. Nancy Milford, author of the Millay biography Savage Beauty, writes: “They wanted to assist her in any way they could, perhaps because in the careful structure of their lives, they felt diminished. Her life would be grand, sweeping, urgent. Incapable of this themselves, they would help her.”

them onstetr gofur

And her life was to be “grant, sweeping, urgent”: a life that one could dream upon, that she herself could dream and feed upon. At Vassar, Millay’s persona was as carefully constructed as her poetry. Her poverty — and the fact that she was there on charity — was known, but she was determined to be an entity.

Her years there were a performance, a practice for the wider stage that lay ahead. She dazzled her classmates, who fell in love with her, and her teachers, who allowed her unimaginable leniencies. She took regular trips to the city, and leisurely country weekends — which gave men, also, the chance to fall in love with her, and gave her the chance to play, at least, at falling in love with them.

For Millay, love (& lovers, both men and women) were as much a substance as food. She burst with hunger for love, just as she did for poetry, freedom, beauty, adoration… and, later drugs, sex and alcohol. Her desire gave shape and momentum to her life, and the “radiance” and the “nausea” that haunted her were two halves of the same whole. She was wild for the thrill of standing on the edge of the abyss and for the radiant colors moving within; it fed her sense of self and her creativity, and her poetry was to be the means and the remains.

Desire and the performance of desire are Millay’s subjects, particularly of the sonnets. Her work, as Mitchell Kennerley, publisher of her first book of poems (black binding, gold letters, creamy Japanese vellum paper), blurbed, dealt “as poetry should, primarily with emotion; with the sense of tears and of laughter, with mortal things; with beauty and passion; with having and losing.” Her themes were always what was personal to her: love, death, nature, longing, sex and self.

In terms of form, her meter is light, lilting, iambic; it hardly strays; and her rhymes are always clean and sweet, often sharp and witty. She writes in a voice that is direct, intimate, sometimes coy but never shy. Her imagery is infused with a sensuality that is both pure and coarse: the well from which it spring from is deep, irreducible, pure unto itself — but the substance itself has a thick grain, is fat with pathos and groans under its own gorgeous, aching weight.

When I encountered my first Millay sonnet (#41 from her 1923 Pulitzer Prize winning collection The Harp Weaver & Other Poems), I was 14. Years later, I can still recite it from memory:

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity – let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

It was such a fun sonnet, so not like Shakespeare, so unambiguous and good to read out loud. There were shades of it that I didn’t get until I was older and had been myself “undone, possessed,”  but I have come back to it again and again over the years and, though I no longer find the rhyme of “breast” and “possessed”  as inventive as I once did, it still arrests me with its play of high purity of form with unapologetic coarseness of sentiment. It’s a dirty poem fashioned with skill and grace, and to make the exalted sonnet disturb the way this sonnet does is in itself enough to give you pause. During Millay’s time, in the heat of a Jazz Age, for a woman to be writing sonnets of such rigorous craft and bold content made her a kind of literary rock star.

It didn’t hurt that Millay was one of those poets who used her life as practice for her art. The mythos that she invented — the starry-eyed creature of enormous appetite left incandescent (in all senses) by its own hungers — was both for her poetry and her daily bread. Her poems were always a portrait of herself: as she was or had been or wanted to be.

eighteen seeeconds

If the speakers in her sonnets come undone, they pose first; they vogue a little, they protest too much. Everything they do is mannered, meant to be observed. For Millay, the poem itself is a performance — a series of stylized acts — and the form itself carries meaning: every foot of iambic verse is a coy gesture, every rhyme a teasing glance, every image of birds and songs and lips and breasts a signal flag that says come hither, says love me, adore me, leave me dispossessed.

In a short scholarly piece in Millay at 100: A Critical Reappraisal, Stacy Hubbard Carson writes that Millay’s sonnets demonstrate how “sexed bodies attach themselves to poetic forms, tropes and narrative structures.” Read this way, Millay’s [sexed] body is the poem’s body, and that she shoves herself into such a series of conventions and constraints — like a person in drag — is the very point of the endeavor. The fun lies in witnessing how she throbs against them, how the sensual charge of her poetry is defined, finessed and magnified by the conservative prettiness of the tropes and narratives that cloak them. Thus Millay’s genius is exercised not in double vision, but in double play: the way she uses her skilled formalism to trick the mind — leave it dazzled, “undone” — while simultaneously flooding and exhausting the senses.

The contradictions in Millay are what people worry over. She adopts masculine and feminine masks, is masked and unmasked, is consumed and consuming. She is her own double: burning herself (“my candle”) from “both ends,” eating from the inside what she has begged others to eat. In life, she was a tiny creature, often described in terms of the startling intensity of her coloring: all pale limbs, bright eyes, fiery hair and lips. In imagination — her own of herself, her public’s of her — she was magical and godlike, an unquenchable Amazon who gave wholly of herself to everyone but remained undiminished.

She thrived in her own duality. Often, she managed to perform the imaginary into reality but even “Vincent” sometimes had her heart broken. As Milford writes, the headlong satiating of the senses in which she routinely indulged could leave her both “stunned by beauty” and “sickened by loss.” The sonnet that follows #41 in The Harp Weaver & Other Poems is this one:

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 my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the 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.

The tone is different here, though the formal methods and manners recognizably the same. We observe the same hungers — perhaps even the same encounter — but through the lens of a quieter emotion. The speaker aches from the void within her and lacks distance from it; here, however, she also lacks the earlier sense of triumph or thrill. It’s a lovely poem, simple, as elegant as the one that came before, and also just as childlike in its helplessness before its own unknowable feelings. There is such sadness in the imagery, in the spareness of the language and its slow slide into memory, but the sentiment pools without deepening or expanding. It exists as an emotion bottled in time, wallowing in its own moodiness, dazzled by its own dignified, moody splendor. On the surface, sonnets #41 and #42 might appear to differ in terms of purpose, but the truth might be that they differ simply in terms of the way that they achieve a very similar purpose — which, in Millay, is nearly always to seduce us with the figure of her exquisitely unraveling self.

In her bohemian New York years, post-Vassar, Millay was a star. She gave readings, acted, published often and created a ferocious one-act anti-war play called Aria da Capo that was a runaway success. She became involved in both political and poetical causes, championing poets that she cared about who had less celebrity than she did, and loved and drank and partied to legendary lengths.

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In 1923, the year of her Pulitzer, she married a man 12 years older whose only ambitions seemed to be to bask in her bright flame and to husband her writing. They bought a farmhouse in the mountains and began a town & country life. In 1931, she published Fatal Interview, her best and most popular volume of poetry, a collection of 52 sonnets written about a love affair with a much younger poet, a handsome but weak man about whom — after the affair went cold — the gossips said she had simply worn out, or that he had always been homosexual.

Millay’s husband Eugen gave her space to conduct the affair, letting her run about Paris with her lover on a Guggenheim she had helped secure for him while Eugen wrote her effusive, pining letters from home. Fatal Interview sold 50,000 copies in its first few months. This was the peak of her fame and her acclaim. Afterwards, she would be famous, even notorious, but something had begun to shift: her poetry, for all its skill and vigor, began to fall out of sync with the fashion of the age.

And the less control Millay had over others — her adoring public, whether near or far — the less control she had over herself. She began to drink more, take drugs, turn up naked in the rooms of female houseguests, asking them for “good old Elizabethan lovemaking.” Her hungers grew larger, and her ability to fulfill them less and less certain.

She was exhausted by her own performances, by the myths she made and played for herself and others. Millay — the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the most famous poet in the world for a while, a woman who thrilled adoring audiences by radio, who jam-packed readings across America, who was acclaimed as the lyric voice of the Jazz Age, whose voice was described as “the most beautiful voice in the world,” “the sound of the ax on fresh wood” – lacked the same thing her poetry lacked: distance, the ability to step away from the grand emotion, away from the “edge of the nausea,” to drop the act and undouble herself. She was unable see things plainly, without the dulling glaze of lyricism or romance, nor to accept that certain things were outside the make of her own hands and not be destroyed by that knowledge.

In 1949, Millay’s husband Eugen — a man who had loved her selflessly, nearly unconditionally since their first encounter — died and she immediately suffered a nervous breakdown from which she never recovered. She was to follow him just a year later, emblematically, epigrammatically, just as she had written, just as she had lived. One night, overcome with the “tangible radiance” of cigarettes, wine, Seconal and a new poem, she finally tumbled over the “edge of nausea” and down the length of her staircase. Her head, on its broken birdlike neck, came to rest on a pile of books and papers, including the draft of the new poem.

It’s funny how Millay, once adored as a luminary, has so definitely had her star fall. Though she is still ranked as a major American poet, she is no longer discussed as a great one. Millay is too much the whirling dervish, the Delphic oracle, too self-conscious and theatrical to suit our modern sensibility. Her poetry is the poetry of the young, the very romantic, those who long to make and remake their own innocence. We know too well what happens when you burn the candle at “both ends.” It may “give a lovely light” but, as anyone who has ever taken a drink before noon knows, nothing ends well when you come undone.

Shahirah Majumdar is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

shahirah 2

My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light.

 three of theme at one time