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on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum,
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“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
– William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act I, scene 2
It is a mistake to fancy that horror
is associated inextricably with
darkness, silence and solitude.
– H. P. Lovecraft
October is a month abounding with myths and legends: witches, ghosts, werewolves, faery-folk, and most terrifying of all – the unknown – all leading up to 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 (Irish Gaelic, SAH-win), or Samhuin (Scots Gaelic, 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.
Special bonfires were lit, for protection and cleansing. It was believed to be a time when the veils between worlds thinned, when faerie folk came amongst humans, and the spirits of the dead could visit their kin.
So here are some poems to suit this Autumnal mood. Don’t be surprised if you start feeling like something is watching you – and waiting …
by Rainer Maria Rilke
A ghost, though invisible, still is like a place
your sight can knock on, echoing; but here
within this thick black pelt, your strongest gaze
will be absorbed and utterly disappear:
just as a raving madman, when nothing else
can ease him, charges into his dark night
howling, pounds on the padded wall, and feels
the rage being taken in and pacified.
She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once
as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.
– translated by Stephen Mitchell
“Black Cat” from The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, translation © 1989 by Stephen Mitchell – Vintage International Edition
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was born in Prague, Bohemia; Austrian-Swiss poet and author; recognized as one of the most lyrically intense and greatest of the German-language poets; noted for The Book of Hours; Duino Elegies; and Letters to a Young Poet.
Light of Love
by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Nay, bury her in her cloak; she was not one
To prison in a coffin. At her head,
When you have strewn the earth with forest leaves,
Pile apricots and peaches, apples red,
Plums, oranges and grapes in one sweet heap-
There where shall hover breathless-humming bees,
And birds that taste, then sit and preen their wings.
And at the foot, I ask that you leave these-
Her slippers. Then some shepherdess may try
In vain to put them on; or little fay,
Knotting her long green hair, steal near to glance.
So may she know that I forget today,
And think of her as when she used to dance.
“Light of Love” from The Creaking Stair © 1949 by Elizabeth Coatsworth – Coward-McCann Publishers
Elizabeth Coatsworth (1893-1986) American author, winner of the Newberry Award (1931) for her children’s classic, The Cat Who Went to Heaven. She published over 90 books of fiction and poetry for adults and children, including The Incredible Tales, contained in four volumes, for adult readers.
by Yusef Komunyakaa
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.
“Blue Dementia” from The Chameleon Couch, © 2011 by Yusef Komunyakaa – Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Yusef Komunyakaa (1941 – ) was born James William Brown in Bogalusa, Louisiana. He took the Komunyakaa, believed to be his grandfather’s African name. He served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, and earned his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine in 1980. He has taught at the University of New Orleans, Indiana University, Princeton and New York University. Among his poetry collections are: Lost in the Bone Wheel Factory; I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head; Magic City; and Thieves of Paradise. His book Neon Vernacular won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He won the Ruth Lily Poetry Prize for lifetime accomplishment in 2001.
We grow accustomed to the Dark
by Emily Dickinson
We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When Light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye—
A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—
And so of larger—Darknesses—
Those Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—
The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—
Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.
“We grow accustomed to the Dark” is in the public domain
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) American’s best-known woman poet and one of the nation’s greatest and most original authors, lived the life of a recluse in Amherst Massachusetts. She wrote nearly 1800 poems, ignoring the traditional poetic forms prevailing among most of the other poets of her day. The extent of her work wasn’t known until after her death, when her younger sister Lavinia discovered her cache of poems.
The Shadow People
by Francis Ledwidge
Old lame Bridget doesn’t hear
Fairy music in the grass
When the gloaming’s on the mere
And the shadow people pass:
Never hears their slow grey feet
Coming from the village street
Just beyond the parson’s wall,
Where the clover globes are sweet
And the mushroom’s parasol
Opens in the moonlit rain.
Every night I hear them call
From their long and merry train.
Old lame Bridget says to me,
“It is just your fancy, child.”
She cannot believe I see
Laughing faces in the wild,
Hands that twinkle in the sedge
Bowing at the water’s edge
Where the finny minnows quiver,
Shaping on a blue wave’s ledge
Bubble foam to sail the river.
And the sunny hands to me
Beckon ever, beckon ever.
Oh! I would be wild and free
And with the shadow people be.
“The Shadow People” – from The Complete Poems of Francis Ledwidge, Fredonia Books, 2002
Francis Ledwidge (1887-1917) – Irish poet, killed in action at the Battle of Passchendaele during World War I.
Written near a Port on a Dark Evening
by Charlotte Smith
Huge vapours brood above the clifted shore,
Night on the ocean settles dark and mute,
Save where is heard the repercussive roar
Of drowsy billows on the rugged foot
Of rocks remote; or still more distant tone
Of seamen in the anchored bark that tell
The watch relieved; or one deep voice alone
Singing the hour, and bidding ‘Strike the bell!’
All is black shadow but the lucid line
Marked by the light surf on the level sand,
Or where afar the ship-lights faintly shine
Like wandering fairy fires, that oft on land
Misled the pilgrim – such the dubious ray
That wavering reason lends in life’s long darkling way.
“Written near a Port on a Dark Evening” is in the public domain.
Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) was born in London; English novelist and poet. She wrote Elegiac Sonnets in 1783 while she was in debtor’s prison with her husband and children. William Wordsworth identified her as an important influence on the Romantic movement. She published several longer works that celebrated the individual while deploring social injustice and the British class system.
a dog howling
sound of footsteps
– translated by Burton Watson
“a dog howling” from Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems, translation © 1998 by Burton Watson – Columbia University Press
Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) was born as Masaoka Noboru, Japanese poet, author , and literary critic during the Meiji period. One of the four great haiku masters, along with Matsuo Bashō, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa. He died of tuberculosis at age 34.
They Run Again
by Leah Bodine Drake
Beyond the black and naked wood
In frosty gold has set the sun,
And dusk glides forth in cobweb hood. . . .
Sister, tonight the werewolves run!
With white teeth gleaming and eyes aflame
The werewolves gather upon the howe!
Country churl and village dame,
They have forgotten the wheel and plow.
They have forgotten the speech of men;
Their throats are dry with a dreadful thirst;
And woe to the traveler in the glen
Who meets tonight with that band accurst!
Now from the hollows creeps the dark;
The moon like a yellow owl takes flight;
Good people on their house-doors mark
A cross, and hug their hearths in fright.
Sister, listen! . . . The King-Wolf howls!
The pack is running! . . . Drink down the brew,
Don the unearthly, shaggy cowls, —
We must be running too!
“They Run Again” – from A Hornbook for Witches by Leah Bodine Drake – Arkham House Publishing (1950)
Leah Bodine Drake (1914-1964) – American poet, her collection This Tilting Dust was a finalist for the poetry award from the National Book Foundation. She died of cancer, just over a month before her 50th birthday
by Walter de la Mare
‘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 Listeners” from Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages, by Walter del al Mare –Knopf (1957)
Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) – prolific English poet, and fiction author, chiefly remembered now for his poem “The Listeners.” He won the 1947 Carnegie Medal for children’s books, and published 13 collections of poetry.
After He Called Her a Witch
by Susan Ludvigson
Special powers were attributed to the orange in
Renaissance England, Italy and Sicily. It was
believed witches could bring death to an enemy
by pinning the victim’s name to an orange and
leaving the orange in the chimney.
When he comes in, late again,
the whole house smells wonderful,
but he can’t quite recognize the scent.
The fire is almost out, a few ashes
flicker in the absent light,
and suddenly he recalls
his mother holding orange peels
over a flame, the singed skin
curling back like petals,
releasing the fragrance.
She did it daily, all one winter,
just for the pleasure.
He doesn’t see on the hearth
the remains of paper, traces
of his name printed in clear
black ink. He wonders how his wife
knew about sweetening their rooms
with oranges, wonders whether it means
the air is cleared,
she wants to make up.
He breathes the evening in,
Imagining her in bed, waiting for him,
forgiveness on her lips
like the taste of oranges.
“After He Called Her a Witch”– from Poetry magazine, November 1982, © 1982 by Susan Ludvigson
Susan Ludvigson (1942 – ) – professor emeritus of English at Winthrop University SC, author of ten collections of poetry, including: The Beautiful Noon of No Shadow (1986), Everything Winged Must Be Dreaming (1993), Trinity (1996), Sweet Confluence: New and Selected Poems (2000), and Escaping the House of Certainty (2006)
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.