• April 24, 2014

Monday's Poem: 'Halloween,' by Sandra Beasley

Somewhere in town tonight,

a woman is discovering

her inner Sexy Pirate.

This is not to be confused

with one's inner Sexy Witch,

Sexy Kitten, Sexy Librarian,

Sexy Bo Peep, Sexy Vampire,

Sexy Race Car Driver, or

inner Sexy Ophthalmologist.

She forgot to buy ribbon,

so she threads the corset's eyelets

with gym shoes laces.

She re-poofs the sleeves

of her buccaneer blouse.

Arrrr, she says to the mirror.

Argh, the mirror sighs in return.

Once I asked my mother why

anyone would wear tights like that

to net a fish.

Wouldn't your legs get cold?

Wouldn't your heels slip

on the wet deck of a ship? Shush,

my mother said, adjusting the wig

on her Sexy Cleopatra.

Somewhere in town tonight,

a sitter sets out the pumpkin.

A girl studies its fat head.

They punch its eyes in, so

it can see. They cut its mouth out,

so it can smile. Now you bring it

to life, the sitter will say.

And where its seeds had been,

the girl will place a flame.

© by Sandra Beasley. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Sandra Beasley's most recent book is Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales From an Allergic Life (Crown, 2011), a memoir and cultural history of food allergy. She is also the author of I Was the Jukebox (W.W. Norton, 2010), winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Theories of Falling (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2008), winner of the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize. Other honors for her work include selection for the The Best American Poetry 2010 (Scribner), the 2010 University of Mississippi Summer Poet in Residence position, a DC Commision on the Arts and Humanities Individual Artist fellowship, the 2009 Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the 2008 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She lives in Washington, D.C., and has a Web site at SandraBeasley.com.

The Chronicle Review's poetry editor, Lisa Russ Spaar of the University of Virginia, notes:

Who has not felt the transformative sway of costume? A pair of empowering boots or an elaborate, liberating Carnival mask can dramatically alter the psychological weather of the wearer. Whether it's body paint, animal skin and antlers, ruby slippers, a military uniform, a Magenta wig for the local midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, your mother's wedding veil, or pumpkin pants and a codpiece sported at an itinerant Renaissance Faire, donning the accoutrements of a clan, nation, holiday, festival, rite, mascot, profession, theatrical production, or public service can allow us to transgress, explore, behave, role-play, and become, however fleetingly, something beyond or other than we feel our ordinary selves to be.

Poems, too, can be "costumed"; poets wear masks. One thinks obviously of poetic speeches given by players portraying characters in theatrical productions—the poetry of Hamlet's blank verse soliloquies, for example, or Lear's fugue-state moor cries—and also of works we call dramatic monologues or personae poems, pieces like Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess," for example, or Rainer Maria Rilke's "The Blindman's Song," Randall Jarrell's "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus," or Ai's "Child Beater." Speaking through the identities of other people frees poets of the onus of the lyric confessional "I" and opens up the psychological voice of the poem to often radically different, even dangerous or opposite, points of view. Interestingly, appropriating or channeling seemingly alien sensibilities can often allow a poet to come closer to his own subject matter than he might otherwise dare. As W.S. Merwin puts it in "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," "unless I go in a mask / How shall I know myself among my faces?" One might argue that the speaker in any poem is a persona—a fabrication of the poet's imagination. In "On sitting down to read 'King Lear' once again," John Keats (who, coincidentally, was born on October 31), surrenders his own identity to Lear's, and, in reading the play again "burn[s] through" him, "Betwixt damnation and impassion'd clay."

Sandra Beasley's "Halloween" steps right into the craze for costuming that has come to characterize All Hallow's Eve in America. In the town where I live, abandoned box stores and warehouses are taken over seasonally in the month or so before Halloween in order to purvey an astonishing array of costumes, fake tombstones, massive cobwebs, spooky noise machines, and all manner of indoor and outdoor decorations—a 21st-century version of Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market." No surprise that Zombies and Lady Gaga outfits seem to be especially popular for adults and children this year, and, as Beasley's poem suggests, entire aisles are devoted to "sexy" anything—gangstas, cupcakes, nurses, peacocks, you name it.

This poem is about more than a mild, ironic look at the plethora of such suggestive costumes, however. Despite Beasley's playful tone, she lets us know that her subject hasn't been quite successful in her quest to connect with her "inner Sexy Pirate." She has forgotten, for example, to buy ribbon for her bustier, so must thread "the corset's eyelets / with gym shoes laces." Things aren't quite right; she fidgets, "re-poofs the sleeves / of her buccaneer blouse." The "Arrrr" she tries out in the mirror is returned as a resigned "Argh."

Who, then, or what, is the subject of the poem? Is it the woman imperfectly attempting to transform into something more adventurous, more sexy? A clue is offered when the first-person enters the poem as a child remembering how she once watched and queried her own mother as the latter dressed up, fishnet hose and all, presumably for an adult costume party:

Once I asked my mother why

anyone would wear tights like that

to net a fish.

Wouldn't your legs get cold?

Wouldn't your heels slip

on the wet deck of a ship? Shush,

my mother said, adjusting the wig

on her Sexy Cleopatra.

When Beasley brings us back to the real-time and place of the poem (Halloween, "in town tonight") it is to show us yet another girl who, perhaps because her mother is out pretending to be Sexy Someone, is left at home with a babysitter. It is hard not to connect this girl with the "I" who has just spoken, and at this point we perceive the speaker of the poem to be perhaps all of the women, mothers, daughters, babysitters, guises, and girls the poem offers. Together they crouch, making a jack-o-lantern, remaking themselves, hollowing out space for a new face, a process involving both a latent thrill (and even violence) and a strange, melancholic sense of loss and possibility:

They punch its eyes in, so

it can see. They cut its mouth out,

so it can smile. Now you bring it

to life, the sitter will say.

And where its seeds had been,

the girl will place a flame.

Halloween has its pagan origins in the ancient Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, and over the years and across cultures has taken many forms in harvest, All Soul's, and alms day rituals involving mummery, begging, and the hollowing out of winter fruits and vegetables—turnips, gourds—gouged, lit, and turned into lanterns to light the way of night travelers. The mysteries, rites, and processes of becoming something else—girl to woman, tired mother to sexy adventuress—whether in reality or fantasy—involve loss as well as recompense. That Beasley's poem manages to address the pop cultural hyperbole and the ancient mysteries not only of Halloween but of the processes of maturation with equal attention and sensitivity is a testament to her poetic vision, which balances seriousness with a light touch, the filling of emptied places with flame.

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