Thursday, June 3, 2010

Little girl on the beach

When was young, I fell in love with the poetry of e.e. cummings (1894-1962). The dude didn't use capital letters, which I thought was delightfully bohemian. And irony dripped off his words. In an ironic lower-case sort of way.

I hadn't read him for years, and then I bought a double album by Natalie Merchant, who over five years wrote music for old pieces of poetry designed to ignite the imagination of children. The album, "Leave Your Sleep," is really cool. And here - something I'd never seen before - is the e.e. cummings poem she chose:

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles, and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea.

What a cool, insightful look at little gals discovering themselves in the incoming waves.

But Merchant dug deeper, discovering that e.e. cummings fathered a daughter, Nancy, born in 1919, that he never properly acknowledged. The woman didn't realized who her father was until she was a mother who was nearly 30. Father and daughter had a few strained meetings thereafter - at one point the poet asked her, "Did anyone anyone ever tell you I was your father?" - and he always forbade her to call him "father" instead of his middle name, "Estlin."

So which was Nancy ... Maggie or Milly, Molly or May? I imagine watching a little girl on the beach, and I think she was them all.


  1. Reading this brought a smile to my face and a warmth in my heart. Thanks for sharing your insights with all of us.

  2. Lovely poem and sentiment. I grew up on the beach, with 3 sisters, and this brought up myriad memories. When we struggled with sleep, my father would suggest that we try to recall the sea, and we would be calmed. Sorry that e.e. never had that with his daughter.