This is the eve of monsters, the night of shambling beasts and frozen princesses and astronauts and etcetera, otherwise known as Halloween! But before it begins, prepare yourself with a literary blood-chilling via the art of poetry!
Today’s special guest lister: Sandra Kasturi
Sandra Kasturi is a poet, writer, editor, and co-publisher of the World Fantasy and British Fantasy Award-winning press ChiZine Publications. Sandra’s work has appeared in various venues, including ON SPEC, Prairie Fire, several Tesseracts anthologies, Evolve, Chilling Tales, A Verdant Green, TransVersions, ARC Magazine, Taddle Creek, Abyss & Apex, 80! Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin, and Stamps, Vamps & Tramps. Her two poetry collections are: The Animal Bridegroom (with an intro by Neil Gaiman) and Come Late to the Love of Birds.
She is currently working on two books: a new poetry collection called Snake Handling for Beginners, as well as a story collection, Mrs. Kong & Other Monsters. She is fond of gin & tonics, Michael Fassbender, and red lipstick.
October 31, 2017
Thirteen Poems that Give Me the ShiversNormally one doesn’t think of poems as the kind of writing that can be creepy or horrific or suitable for this October Country that we are currently inhabiting (unless, perhaps, they are written specifically as Halloween poems, and then they are often silly and meant for children). But over the years I’ve definitely found poems that have given me pause, sometimes just with one line. Others have given me a deliciously shivery feeling. Still others I don’t really like to think about at night. Here’s a baker’s dozen of poetry that made me think twice. Especially after dark.
The Gates of Damascus, James Elroy Flecker
This is an old classic. You should read the whole thing (here), but these are the lines that always make me uneasy:
“Pass not beneath, O Caravan, or pass not singing. Have you heard
That silence where the birds are dead yet something pipeth like a bird?”
Nightfall, Susan A. Manchester
I include Susan Manchester’s “Nightfall” because it gives me a shivery feeling—though it’s not obviously frightening. It’s beautiful but it packs a punch at the end.
Nightfall (link here)
“Even if children fall and stars
and elephants and dark spaces
from the s.ky, it does not matter
Eventually, there will be
a soft landing. Eventually,
they ride the wave of some note
from a golden trumpet sustained
loud and long. Even the black
holes forming craters on the earth
cushions the fall. Each landing,
no more than a ripple on the pond,
finally touches every shore
at the same time. It is and
always will be all right
for anything to fall from the sky.
Trust me,” the Night said.
Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty), Anne Sexton
Anne Sexton is brilliant. Her poetry collection, Transformations, is something I keep going back to. The final poem in the book, “Briar Rose” provides you with a whole other kind of horror.
Further, I must not dream
for when I do I see the table set
and a faltering crone at my place,
her eyes burnt by cigarettes
as she eats betrayal like a slice of meat.
A Farewell to Kansas, Dan Robert Brask Sanengen
This poem was originally published in the April 2006 issue of ChiZine.com/The Chiaroscuro. Back when I was poetry editor there, and was looking for dark, strange poems for our quarterly zine. This is another poem that isn’t immediately frightening, but it takes a favourite childhood story and gives it a nasty twist. Hence, the shiver.
It’s just a universe away,
No more than a day’s ride on monkeyback.
Your hands gripping the stiff bristle of the ape’s neck,
You can feel the sweat of animal fear on its skin
As you race the paths across the cold blue hills
Where the northern winds blow clean through your skull.
All at once there you stand
On a vast green plain
Where funnel-shaped cumuli rise from the ground
As if the plain were a cloud plantation.
The white cotton shapes grow rolling into the sky
Like a silent flourish of banners in the wind.
From time to time
A cloud grows ripe,
Its dark summit swelling
Into a brooding thunderhead
That topples over from its own weight,
Breaking on the plain in a wet explosion,
Sowing the seeds of another cloudy day.
The dew on your skin,
It isn’t sweat
But water bled from the air.
The air is so wet it’s a drink;
With every breath you are drowning.
There is no going back on foot.
And where is that smelly beast
When for once you need it?
Your monkey lies dead in the hills.
The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats
This poem is so famous, it almost doesn’t bear mentioning. And yet … and yet … you should read it again. Especially that apocalyptic ending:
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Outside, Peter Crowther
Pete Crowther is probably best known for running the amazing PS Publishing in the UK, and putting out gorgeous books by wonderful writers. If you haven’t read his own work, you should. And even if you have read his fiction—you might not have read his poetry. And you should.
His eyelids grown suddenly heavy,
he stretches his legs on the seat beside his wife.
“Rest them, dear,” she says,
placing her hand on his foot and smiling at him
as the evening countryside flashes past the carriage window.
He smiles back and nods,
mutters, “Maybe I will,”
a comforting mumble in his throat.
“Just five minutes,” he adds.
As he settles deeper in his seat, he is aware of something calling to him:
he turns and glances at the window.
“The outside,” he says sleepily to his wife.
“Mmm?” she says, lost in a magazine. “What about it, dear?”
It’s trying to get in, he thinks, here… into the carriage.
A silly thought that fragments like airborne seed on a summer breeze,
casting aside the brief image of a sentient patchwork
of fields and meadowland, clustered woods and winding farmtracks,
all watching the train—watching him—pass by.
He shakes his head, dismissing the notion,
and closes his eyes once more.
In his slumber, fitful with the movement beneath and all around him,
he sees the land rise up,
like a green and verdant curtain… a grassy wave of Biblical proportions,
draping and spilling itself along the track
and up against the train.
His wife is not there … a momentary panic until she reappears
from the bathroom, smiling at him vacantly,
seeing his concern.
Her smile widens slowly.
As she sits down he notices a single blade of grass in her hair,
like a feather.
When he comments upon it she laughs—
the soil spilling from her open mouth in a torrent of brown—
and stretches out her arms,
her fingers clutching at him like withered twigs.
You Fit Into Me, Margaret Atwood
Atwood obviously needs no introduction, and I’m guessing this poem doesn’t either. I include it because it falls into the gruesome arena of horror tropes, but I also love the jolt of its analogy on relationships. I also really love very short poems that say everything in just a few lines.
You Fit Into Me
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
My Last Duchess, Robert Browning
Another poem about relationships. Never has murder been so charming! Again, you might know this poem well, but it bears rereading. The awfulness of what has happened is belied by the lovely language. Beauty + horror = perfection.
My Last Duchess
Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.
House of Mystery, Courtney Bates-Hardy
From Courtney’s poetry collection of the same name, this poem evokes a dreamy, shivery mood.
House of Mystery
At seven, you appear in the hallway of the same house
Every time you dream. The wood panelling is dark,
Like the paintings on the walls. You know your family
Is here, trapped in different rooms, but the doors shift
And lock. A witch awaits with her dogs; she only
Chases you when you lose your way, breathing too
Hard to remember where you’ve been. At twelve,
You realize you’ve never seen the witch: a shadow
On the wall with long teeth that recede each time
You dream again but the doors still won’t open
Or let you see where you are. At eighteen,
You only dream of the doors, floating in air,
Stretching into clouds or fire. At twenty,
The dream has stopped but you still walk
Down a hallway with many doors,
Opening one after another.
Testimony of Anne Putnam, Jnr., by Gemma Files
Gemma Files is another writer who is best known for her fiction, particularly her Hexslinger trilogy, and, more recently, the Shirley Jackson and Sunburst Award-winning Experimental Film. But she also writes poetry. Quite upsetting poetry.
Testimony of Anne Putnam, Jnr.
Pins and wax. Skeins of wool,
in diverse colours, wrapped
about my guts. Tracts.
A broken arrowhead, a knife.
All these have I divulged
bodily, nearly at the cost of life.
I know my catechism.
Always, this open chasm at my feet
reminds me of the words rehearsed.
Flames lick at my skirts.
You would know who they are? I cry
their names in answer to the pews
of this bare room where neighbours sit.
I roll and bark about the floor
and hear you gasp to see such fits
as are thrust upon me here.
They are impressive.
my list, too,
Goody Nurse, the old midwife.
Goody Cloyse. Gentle Goody Estey.
Goody Good in her red-heeled boots,
no better than she should be.
So keep your eyes to the floorboards, now,
lest you too look up and see
that yellow bird above my head
which sings them to the hanging tree.
a promise fulfilled, Brian Rosenberger
Here’s another short poem that was published at ChiZine.com in the April 2011 issue. Actually, it’s more funny than scary (at least to me), but once again, it’s got that sting in the tail.
a promise fulfilled
I said I’d be there
until the end
and at the rate
you’re bleeding out
that won’t be long now.
Midnight on the Job, John Grey
From the April 2003 issue of ChiZine.com. What is it about April that gives me the creeps? I love the mood and atmosphere, and then that unnerving moment at the end.
Midnight on the Job
imagine this midnight as a room
where something else is alive
beside the ticking of the clock
and the nervous twirl of my thumbs.
Windowless, almost airless,
nothing to do but feel the fear
eating its way into the loneliness
like a bug on my skin.
Something is in the curtains,
twittering the folds,
coming into its own business
at the evaporation of mine.
This midnight is what another’s heartbeat
would sound like if it beat in me.
It is the chilling sense of me becoming
what it has replaced me with.
Going to Sleep, Dorothy Livesay
And let us end where as we should, with death. Once again, it amazes me how someone can convey an entire concept and give you the shivers, all in two lines.
Going to Sleep
I shall lie like this when I am dead
But with one more secret in my head.