by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
The pages of our calendars are flying off like autumn leaves. To the delight of children, we are nearing that annual candy-scavenge in America: Halloween.
Our celebrations of the eerie and macabre are pretty bland compared to the holiday’s origins, but as long as people gather in the dark to scare each other with spooky stories, we won’t have entirely lost the awe and mystery of Samhain / Samhuin (SAH-win or SOW-in – rhymes with cow)
This was the first day of the new year in the ancient Celtic calendar, the beginning of the “darker half” of the year. ‘Samhain’ is Irish Gaelic. ‘Samhuin’ is Scottish Gaelic. Special bonfires were lit, for protection and cleansing. It was believed to be a time when the veils between worlds thinned, so faerie folk came amongst humans, and the spirits of the dead could visit their kin.
Tales of the supernatural have always held a fascination for humankind, be they about ghosts, witches, fairies, the dead – or the undead – or ‘things that go bump in the night.’ Here’s an assortment of unsettling poems from poets, some of them world-famous, and some you may not already know.
Hughes Mearns (1875–1965) wrote this poem in 1899 for his play, The Psyco-ed. It was inspired by reports of a man’s ghost haunting the stairs of a house in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Later, it became the lyrics for a song called I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There.
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…
When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away,
don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away,
and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)
Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away…
This poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) was in her first book of poetry published in 1917, the same year she graduated from Vassar College.
The Little Ghost
I knew her for a little ghost
That in my garden walked;
The wall is high – higher than most –
And the green gate was locked.
And yet I did not think of that
Till after she was gone–
I knew her by the broad white hat,
All ruffled, she had on.
By the dear ruffles round her feet,
By her small hands that hung
In their lace mitts, austere and sweet,
Her gown’s white folds among.
I watched to see if she would stay,
What she would do – and oh!
She looked as if she liked the way
I let my garden grow!
She bent above my favourite mint
With conscious garden grace,
She smiled and smiled – there was no hint
Of sadness in her face.
She held her gown on either side
To let her slippers show,
And up the walk she went with pride,
The way great ladies go.
And where the wall is built in new
And is of ivy bare
She paused – then opened and passed through
A gate that once was there.
Yusef Komunyakaa (1947 – ) was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana. You can hear the musicians riffing in his poems, and friends lost in the Vietnam war. These ghosts are more real than the ones made up by children holding flashlights below their faces in the dark.
NOTE: Eli “Lucky” Thompson was an American jazz tenor and soprano saxophonist. Marion Brown was a jazz alto saxophonist and ethnomusicologist.
In the days when a man
would hold a swarm of words
inside his belly, nestled
against his spleen, singing.
In the days of night riders
when life tongued a reed
till blues & sorrow song
called out of the deep night:
Another man done gone.
Another man done gone.
In the days when one could lose oneself
all up inside love that way,
& then moan on the bone
till the gods cried out in someone’s sleep.
already I’ve seen three dark-skinned men
discussing the weather with demons
& angels, gazing up at the clouds
& squinting down into iron grates
along the fast streets of luminous encounters.
I double-check my reflection in plate glass
& wonder, Am I passing another
Lucky Thompson or Marion Brown
cornered by a blue dementia,
another dark-skinned man
who woke up dreaming one morning
& then walked out of himself
dreaming? Did this one dare
to step on a crack in the sidewalk,
to turn a midnight corner & never come back
whole, or did he try to stare down a look
that shoved a blade into his heart?
I mean, I also know something
about night riders & catgut. Yeah,
honey, I know something about talking with ghosts.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) may have been a semi-recluse, but she still has a story to tell us about encountering a ghost.
“The only ghost I ever saw”
The only ghost I ever saw
Was dressed in mechlin, — so;
He wore no sandal on his foot,
And stepped like flakes of snow.
His gait was soundless, like the bird,
But rapid, like the roe;
His fashions quaint, mosaic,
Or, haply, mistletoe.
His conversation seldom,
His laughter like the breeze
That dies away in dimples
Among the pensive trees.
Our interview was transient, —
Of me, himself was shy;
And God forbid I look behind
Since that appalling day!
Maurice Kilwein Guevara (1961 – ) was born in Belencito, Colombia, but his family moved to Pittsburgh when he was two years old. He is a founding member of the National Latino Writers’ Association, and has published four volumes of poetry. Guevara has a real gift for words that shiver up your spine.
A Rhyme for Halloween
Tonight I light the candles of my eyes in the lee
And swing down this branch full of red leaves.
Yellow moon, skull and spine of the hare,
Arrow me to town on the neck of the air.
I hear the undertaker make love in the heather;
The candy maker, poor fellow, is under the weather.
Skunk, moose, raccoon, they go to the doors in threes
With a torch in their hands or pleas: “O, please . . .”
Baruch Spinoza and the butcher are drunk:
One is the tail and one is the trunk
Of a beast who dances in circles for beer
And doesn’t think twice to learn how to steer.
Our clock is blind, our clock is dumb.
Its hands are broken, its fingers numb.
No time for the martyr of our fair town
Who wasn’t a witch because she could drown.
Now the dogs of the cemetery are starting to bark
At the vision of her, bobbing up through the dark.
When she opens her mouth to gasp for air,
A moth flies out and lands in her hair.
The apples are thumping, winter is coming.
The lips of the pumpkin soon will be humming.
By the caw of the crow on the first of the year,
Something will die, something appear.
Robert Frost (1874 – 1963) gives us a haunted house story that is an unusual variation on this old theme.
I dwell in a lonely house I know
That vanished many a summer ago,
And left no trace but the cellar walls,
And a cellar in which the daylight falls,
And the purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow.
O’er ruined fences the grape-vines shield
The woods come back to the mowing field;
The orchard tree has grown one copse
Of new wood and old where the woodpecker chops;
The footpath down to the well is healed.
I dwell with a strangely aching heart
In that vanished abode there far apart
On that disused and forgotten road
That has no dust-bath now for the toad.
Night comes; the black bats tumble and dart;
The whippoorwill is coming to shout
And hush and cluck and flutter about:
I hear him begin far enough away
Full many a time to say his say
Before he arrives to say it out.
It is under the small, dim, summer star.
I know not who these mute folk are
Who share the unlit place with me–
Those stones out under the low-limbed tree
Doubtless bear names that the mosses mar.
They are tireless folk, but slow and sad,
Though two, close-keeping, are lass and lad,–
With none among them that ever sings,
And yet, in view of how many things,
As sweet companions as might be had.
This is just about the only poem by Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) which still appears in anthologies, and that’s a shame, because he wrote a great many poems, and lots of them are excellent. But this is one that will stick in your mind long after you’ve read it.
‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
. Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
. Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
. Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
. ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
. No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
. Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
. That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
. To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
. That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
. By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
. Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
. ’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
. Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
. That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
. Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
. From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
. And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
. When the plunging hoofs were gone.
The dark has always made us uneasy because we can’t see everything that’s in it. We wonder what might be lurking just past the firelight, or outside the bedroom window. Often, it’s “just our imagination” but once in a while, we are reminded, as William Shakespeare says in Hamlet:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Remember to have enough treats for all the little witches, princesses, ghosts and comic book heroes who’ll be coming to your door, and do please keep some spare change handy for UNICEF.
- Samhain/Samhuin lore https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samhain
- Antigonish by Hughes Mearns (poem in public domain)
- The Little Ghost, from Renascence and Other Poems, Edna St. Vincent Millay – Harper, 1917 http://www.bartleby.com/br/131.html
- Blue Dementia from The Chameleon Couch © 2011 by Yusef Komunyakaa – Farrar, Straus and Giroux https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/blue-dementia
- “The only ghost I ever saw” – from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, CreateSpace Publishing, 2013
- A Rhyme for Halloween, from Poems of the River Spirit. © 1996 by Maurice Kilwein Guevara http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/247394
- Ghost House, (public domain) by Robert Frost
- The Listeners – from Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages, by Walter del al Mare –Knopf (1957)
- Old house staircase
- Little Girl in White, by Kate Greenaway
- Jazz ghost
- Small boy in old-fashioned clothes
- Graveyard Jack-O-Lantern
- Remains of abandoned house
- The Listeners – woodcut illustration, Nydam print
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud