Halloween is one of those celebrations that many of us have enjoyed from such a young age that it is hard to remember its origins. And, though most of us associate the day with traditions like dressing up, trick-or-treating, etc., the roots are, in fact, rather more religious. It is the evening or day before All Saints Day — which used to be observed to remember Christian saints and martyrs. Some still maintain that certain pagan rites and rituals had also been a significant influence. As with many ancient celebrations, this one, too, has inherited a mishmash of customs so that it now stands by itself as something entirely of its own.
Whatever aspect of Halloween you prefer, even if you’re not too interested in it overall, it is hard not to get swept along in the spirit of things as various media and people (mostly kids, of course) around you share their enthusiasm and excitement.
Today’s poem focuses on one of the more popular aspects of Halloween today — spooks and spirits. But, in her typical style, the poet, Louise Glück, gives us a carefully-crafted set of layered images, assimilating popular tropes for the time of year and the day: harvest time, the rising spectral moon, a lone woman with possible supernatural powers and, of course, a haunting (or haunted?) spirit. Glück’s skill lies in how she assembles and presents everything — so that the mood and emotions evoked cannot fail to linger long after we’re done reading. In fact, it is one of those poems that, on re-reading, still retains its overall resonance and mysticism.
The poem starts with a description of a fall or autumn day ending. It is just after harvest time, so the fields have been picked empty. This barrenness seeps into the next layer of images in the second verse where a wife is crying out for a child. Given the last line of “And the soul creeps out of the tree.”, we can assume that she has lost a child already and, possibly, cannot have any more. So, she continues to yearn and mourn for the one who is gone.
What is so striking about this deceptively simple little poem is how Glück took harvest time and the barren field to bring us to the barren wife and, finally, the spirit of the dead child that lives in a nearby tree. Smooth transitions such as these (from the outer landscape to the inner experience to occultism) may seem easy enough but are rather tricky to render in poetic form. And, Glück pulls off another feat, which is to say it all in her typical brevity and understatedness. And, while birth and maternity are popular themes in Glück’s poetry, as they are here, her ambivalence towards them gives the poem even more of an air of mystery. The barren landscape can be seen as the aftermath of a fruitful harvest or the result of destruction through pestilence. Similarly, the barren wife can be seen as one who has given birth to a child lost or one who is unable to give birth even as she offers up her seed as some kind of payment.
Enough said. Enjoy this poem as something different this Halloween.
Even now this landscape is assembling.
The hills darken. The oxen
sleep in their blue yoke,
the fields having been
picked clean, the sheaves
bound evenly and piled at the roadside
among cinquefoil, as the toothed moon rises:
This is the barrenness
of harvest or pestilence.
And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here, little one
And the soul creeps out of the tree.
~ Louise Glück, ‘The First Four Books of Poems‘