What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why
“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 in 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.”
Author: Edna St. Vincent Millay
Source: Vanity Fair, 1920
This poem is my favourite poem in the whole world. I love it so much I can recite it by heart. Have you ever done that? Learned your favourite poem by heart so you can tell it to yourself anytime you want to hear it? If not, I encourage it, it’s heart medicine.
I came across this poem years and years ago, at a time when I was still experimenting with shaving different parts of my body, applying a rainbow of eyeshadow colours to my plump, uncreased eyelids, and stuffing my bra, wondering when I would start looking and feeling like a woman.
Like a woman whose lips had been kissed by beautiful, dark men with dangerous eyes.
Like a woman who knows what it feels like to have loved another with her entire body, and to have been touched like her flesh was all that mattered in the world.
To be so deep into the journey of Woman, that the ache of loss and longing was so poignant it was as if it had grown roots beneath my feet, planting me to a ground so barren and isolated, but so comforting for its constancy.
To a point where the pain of life and love became something of a work of art, to be admired for its effort, but at the same time, made me bleed a little on the inside.
Because this is what I thought it was to be a woman.
To have hurt so deeply that a monument should represent my pain. A statue of ego, a stone wall, stories committed solely to evoking emotions of grandeur and spilling them, clumsy-like, staining available ears.
And this wonder, this anticipation of Woman inspired an Anaïs Nin-like romance within me.
What must it be like to feel that depth of emotion within, and be isolated with it, stale air trapped inside a warm, pulsing life?
What must it feel like to experience that depth with another person, to embody it within a physical act of love, that actually transgresses the physical plane, makes you shed the security of your skin and enter the space of another world?
And true, that is a very real part of being Woman. To give that depth fresh air and space and access to the ambrosia of the outside world, and to mingle between the inner, the outer, the above, the below, in a beautiful, sometimes sorrowful dance.
But not the sad kind of sorrow. The real and necessary kind of sorrow that makes love and joy so ultimately visceral, tangible, saturating the molecules of the air that surrounds us.
Through the years this poem has stayed with me, informed me, been my sweet spoonful of pie after every love, every loss, every inner revolution.
I think we’ve all experienced having read a piece of text that resonated so profoundly within us that all we could do was stop and stare at a blank wall. As though stillness was the most necessary requirement for absorbing those words into our blood to make that feeling, that realization, that epiphany stay with us.
To feel that emotion so wholly that it was almost numbing.
And within such a text there is usually one part that stands out, even a single word or line perhaps, that strikes such a chord within that its almost like drinking down a tonic of all the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard.
For me, in this poem, that part is “thus in the winter stands the lonely tree”.
The lonely tree.
The lonely tree.
The lonely tree.
You mean, trees have feelings?
Trees can feel isolated and alone?
Trees can feel despair?
Trees can feel that 3 am loss when its eyes open momentarily, in the dark, to realize they lie alone, always alone?
It was such an incredibly poignant notion for me that those three words, the lonely tree, became part of me, and have stayed a part of me wherever I go, whatever phase of Woman I enter and retreat from. Because those who’ve experienced, or perhaps choose, true loneliness understand a certain kind of sorrow and a certain kind of strength.
Trees are actually very social beings. Like people, they don’t survive well in isolation, away from their communities of forests and jungles and mangroves. Places where their roots become so intertwined it’s impossible to distinguish one tree from the next.
So how does the lonely tree survive?
Maybe that’s why the willow weeps and the palm’s fronds reach out and wiggle their fingers, why the banyan’s roots grow up toward heaven, why trees sway their branches in a melancholic dance, letting go their leaves to the earth, to share their joy and despair and make room for new life.