cover image WHAT LIPS MY LIPS HAVE KISSED: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay

WHAT LIPS MY LIPS HAVE KISSED: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Daniel Mark Epstein, . . Holt/Macrae, $26 (300pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-6727-9

Sexually implacable, perennially noncommittal and, by all accounts, possessed of an irresistible charisma, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay led a love life of Byronic proportions. The truth about her personal affairs was scarcely less fantastic than the rampant speculations; even now, historians find it difficult to separate Millay rumor from Millay fact. This volume, a case in point, is less a biography of the great seductress than an imaginative reconstruction of her amorous adventures. As such, it reads like a literary novel with a racy streak. Some may argue that Epstein goes too far in the fictional coloring of his heroine, particularly in the early parts of the book, where he refers to one of America's greatest lyric poets as "the little sorceress" and "the little actress." Still, Epstein's telling of the poet's progress makes for gripping narrative and will satisfy readers interested in Millay's romantic image and sources of inspiration. An experienced author and poet himself, Epstein is especially skillful at calling up vivid images, and he makes even the better-known facets of Millay's love life (such as her bisexuality and her 25-year open marriage) seem fresh. The book's preface makes much of Epstein's use of unpublished material viewed by hardly anyone besides the poet's sister Norma and "possibly one other biographer whom [Norma] engaged to write a book in the 1970s." In a case of fateful timing, the "other biographer" (Nancy Milford) will at last publish her book, Savage Beauty (Forecasts, June 18), in the same month as Epstein's, and will almost certainly steal his thunder. Whereas Epstein's book offers a rousing tribute to the Millay legend, Milford's outstrips his in breadth and subtlety. (Sept. 10)