Then Worms Shall Try:
Seven Studies in the Efficacy of Andrew Marvells "To His Coy Mistress"
by Michael Hartford
Date: June 13, 1987
Location: Patty Wrzynskis 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 Millays "First
Fig", then took my hand and led me to a stand of cottonwoods in the back of
Pattys 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 Daphnes laurel branches, and I
recited a sonnet I had written the week before about Daphne and Apollo, though Id
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
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 didnt 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 Lucys.
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
didnt 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,
didnt 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 OMalley, 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 Jamesons, I slurred out my Marvell, leaning across the bar with my
elbows in the remains of somebody elses 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 taps 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
Response: Through a mutual college friend I ran into at a conference in Arizona,
I got Lucys 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 Marvells 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.