Who sits with you at the table for supper? Whose hand, when you are weary, lifts the soup spoon to your mouth?
Louise Glück’s “All Hallows”: it doesn’t get more sublime, or more terrifying. If you know your horror, you’ll know it’s the speculative unfurling that steals your sleep, far more than the manic clown’s face dripping with blood. The blood in this poem is hidden: it sits under the skin, patient and clever as any ghost biding its time. Glück’s pastoral gothic, which brings us darkening hills, fields picked-clean, oxen sleeping in their blue yoke, is an anticipation. Let’s think about that quality of a poem when it’s picked clean. It makes me muse on how sparely Jean Rhys furnished the narrative rooms of Wide Sargasso Sea and her other works, because every word had to matter, had to be relied on to count. You could read “All Hallows” the same way: it not only draws in with an emotive anticipation, it gathers tension like the dropping of superfluous sheaves.
The poem is notched, mounting in a slow, arid expectancy “as the toothed moon rises”. You don’t know what to expect, waiting with it. You find that the poem makes you complicit in the act of an unsettled spectatorship. “This is the barrenness / of harvest or pestilence”, says the omniscient narrator, so we don’t expect a bountiful gathering. This is no scene with Hallowe’en pumpkins, bursting golden with the rewards of a rich harvest. This All Hallows sees the wife, beckoning the soul out of the tree, her “her hand extended, as in payment, / and the seeds / distinct, gold, calling / Come here / Come here, little one“.
When picked this clean, the very bones of the poem gleam, currency for the boatman. Who are you calling down from the tree?
This is the nineteenth installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.