October already. It is a special month for me. I was born in October, as was my mother. I love how I feel the changing of the seasons in my bones, how lingering smoke laces the cool air with its complicated presence. Like any other month, it is full of events and observances: United Nations Day, International Day of Non-Violence, International World Teachers’ Day, Thanksgiving Day in Canada, Columbus Day, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, World Food Day, Navy Day, even Apple Day! It is also Filipino American History Month, Black History Month in the UK, National Arts and Humanities Month, Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender History Month, Dwarfism Awareness Month, Breast cancer Awareness Month, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, National Cyber Security Awareness Month, Health Literacy Month, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Awareness Month, and many more. It is also—especially a blessing for a first generation American of German heritage like me—German American Heritage month, the month of Oktoberfests! As well, it’s Polish American Heritage Month, Italian American Heritage Month, and National Hispanic American Heritage Month. On high school, college, and professional football fields, as James Wright so aptly put it, players “gallop terribly against each other's bodies.” It’s the month where Major League Baseball decides its champion, and it’s when the National basketball Association begins its season (though not this year, it seems at this moment).
There’s a lot going on in October, but my favorite thing about the month has always been what takes place on the 31st, Halloween. There’s some disagreement about the celebration’s antecedents; most folklorists, though, trace it back to the Celtic Festival of Samhain, a word that can be translated to mean summer’s end. The cultural trappings we now associate with this celebration have developed over time.
According to Wikipedia, “The American tradition of carving pumpkins is recorded in 1837and was originally associated with harvest time in general, not becoming specifically associated with Halloween until the mid-to-late 19th century.” Wikipedia also points out that “the carving of jack-o'-lanterns springs from the souling custom of carving turnips into lanterns as a way of remembering the souls held in purgatory.” I love this fact. I love how it reminds me that poetry, too, is a carving, a souling custom that attempts, on some level, to free readers from whatever purgatory—self or otherwise inflicted—we may suffer from at the moment of reading a particular poem that moves us. Moves us. Takes us from one place to another.
Wikipediagoes on to explain how “Trick-or-treating resembles the late medieval practice of souling, when poor folk would go door to door on Hallowmas (November 1), receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls' Day.” As I gear up for readings in New York, Atlanta, and North Carolina, it occurs to me how the practice is similar. When I read my poems to an audience, I feel like I am at the door, handing out treats, but I am also at the door (in my poet’s mask) asking for them. I offer my jack-o’-lanterns and turnips, and get in return the gift of having given something. It is always my hope—especially in October, when I am forced to confront my age, my mother’s age, the coming of another winter—that maybe one poem will find one soul and set that soul free.
Here in North Carolina, as elsewhere in the so-called Bible Belt, I find too many homes darkened on Halloween night. It is for religious reasons, they claim, that no welcome is given to our communities’ children, that they offer nothing for the souls. Even though the rites and celebrations of Christianity have largely come from Pagan roots, they see in Halloween the devil. And they’re right. There he lurks. So they lock their own souls away, in the dark, resentful of children who cross their lawns toward the homes of welcoming neighbors, toward the light; and when a child, naive to such soul-locking, happens to ring the bell, no one answers, no one moves, no one is home. Souls go hungry. Trick or treat?
Here are a few Halloween poems.
by Michael Waters
That Halloween I wore your wedding dress,
our children spooked & wouldn’t speak for days.
I’d razored taut calves smooth, teased each blown tress,
then—lipsticked, mascaraed, & self-amazed—
shimmied like a starlet on the dance floor.
I’d never felt so sensual before—
Catholic schoolgirl & neighborhood whore.
In bed, dolled up, undone, we fantasized:
we clutched & fused, torn twins who’d been denied.
You were my shy groom. Love, I was your bride.
Theme in Yellow
by Carl Sandburg
I spot the hills
With yellow balls in autumn.
I light the prairie cornfields
Orange and tawny gold clusters
And I am called pumpkins.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children join hands
And circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am a jack-o'-lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.
All Souls’ Night, 1917
by Hortense King Flexnor
You heap the logs and try to fill
The little room with words and cheer,
But silent feet are on the hill,
Across the window veiled eyes peer.
The hosts of lovers, young in death,
Go seeking down the world to-night,
Remembering faces, warmth and breath—
And they shall seek till it is light.
Then let the white-flaked logs burn low,
Lest those who drift before the storm
See gladness on our hearth and know
There is no flame can make them warm.