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Then Worms Shall Try:   Seven Studies in the Efficacy of Andrew Marvell’s "To His Coy Mistress"

by Michael Hartford


Date:  June 13, 1987

Location:  Patty Wrzynski’s graduation party, Green Bay, Wisconsin

Subject:  Niamh MacDonald, the prettiest girl in AP English Literature, who wore voluminous peasant skirts and sang Joni Mitchell songs in a high, incantatory voice.

Response:  She countered with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s "First Fig", then took my hand and led me to a stand of cottonwoods in the back of Patty’s yard.  Her lips tasted faintly of the peach schnapps Eddy Wright slipped into the punch.  We met several more times over the summer:  at the Tilt-a-Whirl at Bay Park Beach, at the abandoned TB sanitarium on Lost Dauphin Road, and one glorious afternoon in her parents’ basement where we recited Donne to each other between breathless gasps and listened like burglars of love for footsteps in the kitchen.  In the fall she went to Boston College, and became successful on the East Coast coffee house circuit with her crystalline voice and evocative lyrics.  I own both her albums, and play them in the car driving to work, sighing at the allusions to Herrick and Pope.

Date:  October 22, 1988

Location:  Sensenbrenner Hall, St. Norbert College, DePere, Wisconsin

Subject:  Lucy Stein, from the Milton seminar, who loved modern poetry and classic jazz, particularly Artie Shaw.

Response:  A little tipsy from the cheap red wine at the English Department reception for a visiting poet, I recited Marvell all the way across campus while dry leaves crackled like ice under our feet.  When I came to the couplet that makes the poem extraordinary – "The grave is a fine and private place/But none do there I think embrace" – she kissed me and ran up the dormitory steps.  I followed, and we crept through the halls, wary of Residence Assistants, giggling and kissing.   In the morning her thick black hair was tangled like Daphne’s laurel branches, and I recited a sonnet I had written the week before about Daphne and Apollo, though I’d actually written it for Martha from the American novel class.  The next day Lucy slid a note under my door, confessing that she had a boyfriend in Chicago; she avoided me, or I avoided her; avoidances occurred. I changed my major to history.   Two years later, a week before graduation, we met at her room again, but this time there was no Marvell, Herrick, or Donne; there was only cheap red wine and a sun sprinting toward an uncertain dawn.

Date:  October 22, 1989

Location:  Hyde Park, London

Subject:  Natasha Smith, who was studying microbiology at Queen Mary College and looked a lot like Audrey Hepburn.

Response:  At breakfast at South Woodford Halls, Natasha invited me for a walk; it was a warm, sunny fall day, and her boyfriend Kevin, the first Englishman I met when I arrived for my semester in London, was intent on wasting it at the library.  I was late meeting her at Marble Arch station – I had lingered too long at a shop in Bloomsbury that sold antique etchings – and she laughed when I ran panting up the stairs. While we walked around the Serpentine, I listened to her complain about Kevin, who never had time for her, who was always talking about his research projects (he was studying aeronautical engineering), and didn’t like any of her friends.  With the sun dropping over the pond and throwing golden fingers across the water, I recited my poem.  Natasha whispered, "I fancy you," and we kissed, tentatively at first and then with conviction.  Later I tried out Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, even some Joe Jackson lyrics; she was receptive to them all.  When I went back to the States before Christmas, she wrote to me a few times, but by May the letters had stopped completely.  Fifteen years later I found her e-mail address – she had published a few papers on virology with a team from UCLA – and I wrote to her with a reference to "vegetable love."  She replied politely, did not acknowledge the reference, and never answered again.

Date:  May 13, 1993

Location:  on the Purdue University quadrangle, West Lafayette, Indiana

Subject:  Molly Rucker, a tall, lithe Oregonian whose tangled black hair reminded me of Lucy’s.

Response:  After an interminably dull lecture about using the agricultural census in historical sociology, we walked to the library together, talking about our pasts.   I mentioned that I had once been an English major, which she found either amusing or intriguing; I tried to recite Marvell, but could remember only the first few lines, the "grave" couplet, and the very end.  She may not have heard me, because it was windy and starting to rain.  When I moved to Minneapolis in the summer, I sent her a postcard of the cherry-and-spoon sculpture, but I was unsure of her address and she may not have received it.

Date:  June 10, 1995

Location:  the bridge over Hennepin Avenue between Loring Park and the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Subject:  Lonnie Padinopolos, a woman I met during new employee orientation at a Fortune 100 corporation downtown.

Response:  Because I had been temping at this company for over a year, I didn’t pay much attention to the orientation.  Instead, I paid attention to Lonnie, who looked a little like Audrey Hepburn if I squinted.  I asked her out for coffee, and we met at Au Bon Pain the next day.  She looked a little less like Audrey Hepburn.  I paid.  She wanted to go see a play, so I suggested "The Rover," which was on at the Guthrie.  We met at the park that Saturday, and while crossing Hennepin Avenue I launched into Marvell, having spent the morning memorizing it again.  The traffic noise drowned me out.  We bought the cheapest seats, on the stage itself, where we sat sweating under carnival masks and stared at the actors’ backs.  We watched exiled Cavaliers in motorcycle leather expounding in Jacobean blank verse, and at the end of the second act, two parachute-nylon pillars shaped like giant penises emerged from the floor.  Lonnie, it turned out, was a lesbian, didn’t really like the theater, and moved back to Seattle a few months later.

Date:  October 11, 1995

Location:  The Irish Well, St. Paul, Minnesota

Subject:  Caitlin O’Malley, bartender, who with her flame-red hair and soft features looked nothing like either Lucy or Audrey Hepburn.

Response:  Since July I had been learning Gaelic in the basement of the Irish Well, from the local legend Sean T. Kelly; so far I could decline regular verbs and recite some poems by Nuala Ni Dhomhnail.  That night, though, after three pints of Guinness and a shot of Jameson’s, I slurred out my Marvell, leaning across the bar with my elbows in the remains of somebody else’s drink.  Caitlin cut me off.  But because she could pour a black-and-tan without a spoon, making the Guinness float on the Harp with molecular precision, and because she etched perfect little frowning faces into the foam of my pint with the tap’s last dribbles, I eventually married her.

Date:  June 19, 2000

Location:  Minneapolis, Minnesota

Subject:  Lucy Gordon, nee Stein, now living in Skokie with her husband and two sons.

Response:  Through a mutual college friend I ran into at a conference in Arizona, I got Lucy’s address.  I spent a whole night with a fifth of scotch and a yellow legal pad trying to write a letter to Lucy.  With balled up pages all around my chair, I finally wrote out Marvell’s poem, mostly from memory, though I did run to the basement for my dog-eared Norton Anthology to check my work.  Then I ran to the mailbox two blocks away, not even bothering to put on my shoes, so I could send it before I lost my nerve.  Lucy never replied.