‘A Rhyme for Halloween’ delights in exploring the disquieting liminal space between reality and the paranormal. Colombian poet Maurice Kilwein Guevara uses magical realism to conjure up an atmosphere that blurs the lines dividing those two worlds entirely.
Resulting in a poem that takes advantage of the potent mix of superstition, legends, and base fears that can unwillingly intoxicate even the most rational person’s mind on Halloween night. Even the speaker of the poem — who serves as the guide through this phantasmagoria — appears to be a creature of supernatural origin. Yet, for all its bizarre and unnerving imagery, the poem offers a rather entertainingly macabre journey that toys with the reader’s perception.
Explore A Rhyme for Halloween
‘A Rhyme for Halloween’ unfolds as a creepy observation of Halloween night — as seen through the candlelit eyes of the speaker. The first stanza opens with a fantastical description of them swinging down the branches of their perch and through its “red leaves” toward a nearby town.
Once there they reveal all the different activities the townspeople are engaged in: “I hear the undertaker make love in the heather; / The candy maker, poor fellow, is under the weather.” They even see a group of trick-or-treaters who appear not as children but the animals they wander disguised as: “Skunk, moose, raccoon, they go to the doors in threes.” This is followed by another surreal scene of Halloween revelry when a man named Baruch Spinoza appears with the butcher costumed together as the tail and trunk “of a beast who dances in circles for beer.”
The next three stanzas shift away from Halloween’s more festive aspects toward its more morbid side. The speaker relates a small tale about the “martyr of our fair town” who was accused of being a witch — but ironically “wasn’t a witch because she could drown.” The following stanza offers a grisly “vision of her, bobbing up through the dark” surface of the water, mouth agape when “a moth flies out and lands in her hair.”
The poem ends with more familiar images of Halloween that are made frightening by the speaker’s otherworldy perceptions. “The lips of the pumpkin soon will be humming,” they warn, conjuring up the vision of a possessed jack-o-lantern. They finish on an ominous note of prophecy that upon the first of the year, “something will die, something appear.”
Structure and Form
‘A Rhyme for Halloween’ is a poem comprised of six quatrains with a rhyme scheme of ‘AABB’ that repeats across each stanza. Guevara also utilizes alliteration and internal and end rhymes to create a lyrical rhythm that evokes a kind of nursery or children’s rhyme. This cadence only makes the speaker’s narration of the unsettling scenes that take place on Halloween night all the more eerie and haunting.
‘A Rhyme for Halloween’ employs the use of a variety of different literary devices to create its fantastical scenes, some of which are listed below:
- Metaphor: “Tonight I light the candles of my eyes” (1).
- Personification: “Our clock is blind, our clock is dumb. / Its hands are broken, its fingers numb” (13-14).
- Visual imagery: “Yellow moon, skull and spine of the hare” (3); “Skunk, moose, raccoon, they go to the doors in threes / With a torch in their hands” (7-8); “One is the tail and one is the trunk” (10); “At the vision of her, bobbing up through the dark. / When she opens her mouth to gasp for air, / A moth flies out and lands in her hair” (18-20).
- Kinesthetic imagery: “And swing down this branch full of red leaves” (2); “Arrow me to town on the neck of the air” (4); “Of a beast who dances in circles for beer” (11).
- Auditory imagery: “I hear the undertaker make love in the heather” (5); “Now the dogs of the cemetery are starting to bark” (17); “The lips of the pumpkin soon will be humming” (22).
Tonight I light the candles of my eyes in the lee
And swing down this branch full of red leaves.
Yellow moon, skull and spine of the hare,
Arrow me to town on the neck of the air.
In the first stanza of ‘A Rhyme for Halloween,‘ the speaker is introduced as the narrator and is characterized in a way that implies they are of the supernatural world. “Tonight I light the candles of my eyes” (1), they declare, evoking the image of a jack-o-lantern.
In a swift sequence of kinesthetic imagery, they “swing down this branch full of red leaves” (2) and appear to cast a spell that will “arrow [them] to town on the neck of the air” (4). The stanza is also filled with visual imagery and diction that bolsters Guevara’s magical realism. From the “red leaves” (2) of the speaker’s perch to the objects listed in their invocation: Yellow moon, skull and spine of the hare” (3).
I hear the undertaker make love in the heather;
The candy maker, poor fellow, is under the weather.
The second stanza begins with a description of the townspeople’s activities on Halloween night. Yet from the perspective of Guevara’s otherworldly speaker, even familiar aspects of the holiday are rendered strange and grotesque. The most prominent example of this is the group of trick-or-treaters going door-to-door: “Skunk, moose, raccoon, they go to the doors in threes / With a torch in their hands or pleas: ‘O, please . . .'” (7-8). The visual imagery of such an oddity reveals the power of the poet’s use of magical realism.
Baruch Spinoza and the butcher are drunk:
One is the tail and one is the trunk
The third stanza of ‘A Rhyme for Halloween’ continues to explore the various Halloween revelers. This time focusing on a man named Baruch Spinoza — one-half of a pair dressed in a costume made for two people. Both men are described as being drunk inside their respective body parts: “One is the tail and one is the trunk / Of a beast who dances in circles for beer” (10-11).
What’s important to note is that at this point in the poem, despite fantastical and ominous diction, it is still possible to identify the borderlines between what is real and what is not. That is not actually a beast but Spinoza and the butcher; nor is it, in the case of the last stanza, a group of anthropomorphic woodland creatures trick-or-treating but children in costumes.
Our clock is blind, our clock is dumb.
Its hands are broken, its fingers numb.
‘A Rhyme for Halloween’ undergoes a shift in its fourth stanza that is marked by its mysteriously troubling opening lines: “Our clock is blind, our clock is dumb. / Its hands are broken, its fingers numb” (13-14). The grim personification serves to underscore the way the town exists in a space beyond time’s effect — as well as its supernatural nature — perhaps as a means of foreshadowing the arrival of legends past and the dead who occupy them.
The last two lines of the stanza support this interpretation: as if to wind back time by breaking the clock, the speaker tells of the town’s martyr, a woman who “wasn’t a witch because she could drown” (16). This lurid line of thought continues into the next stanza.
Now the dogs of the cemetery are starting to bark
At the vision of her, bobbing up through the dark.
The speaker describes via auditory imagery the way the “dogs of the cemetery are starting to bark” (17) because something is emerging from the murky waters. In a stunning and frightening example of visual imagery, the female martyr sentenced to death out of an accusation of witchcraft appears — “the vision of her, bobbing up through the dark” (18). The terror of the scene is completed by her gasps for air and the image of a “moth [flying] out and [landing] in her hair” (20).
The apples are thumping, winter is coming.
The lips of the pumpkin soon will be humming.
‘A Rhyme for Halloween’ ends just as eerily as it began, with the speaker entangling a variety of familiar symbols of Halloween and transforming them into something ghastly. The “thumping” (21) of the apples (a reference to fall, during which the ripe fruit falls from the trees) creates a startling bit of aural imagery that might inspire the thought of bodies or even heads being lopped off.
While the austere claim that “winter is coming ” (21) adds a chilly reminder of the coming season that only brings death with it, as if to emphasize this, the speaker ends their rhyme with a paradoxical portent that when the crow caws on the “first of the year, / Something will die, something appear” (24).
The poem’s theme centers on its surreal portrayal of Halloween as a time of supernatural and somewhat sinister festivities. There are familiar elements like trick-or-treating and costumes, but these are lost amidst images of corpses coming to life and prophecies of death. All of which blurs the lines between reality and the ethereal.
It can be gleaned from the poem’s heavy reliance on imagery that Guevara possibly enjoyed the holiday for a variety of reasons. Despite its foreboding tone and mood, the poem appears to be a celebration of Halloween that uses magical realism to offer a bizarre experience of the holiday.
Guevara’s use of personification stands out in the poem as this ominous piece of figurative language. One interpretation could explain it as a symbol of the town’s paranormal connections: time is rendered useless (“blind” and “dumb”), and it is impossible to tell the minute or hour (“Its hands are broken, its fingers numb”).
The poem mentions a woman who was killed over a false accusation of being a witch. Guevara lived in both Colombia and the United States, so while it’s unclear what country the poem is set in, what’s interesting is both countries experienced their own witch hunts. The city of Cartagena, Colombia, in particular, was of great importance to the Spanish Inquisition. There, the Palacio de la Inquisición was built, where 800 people were executed for the practice of black magic. Many of those accused were women, so the poet’s allusion to the events serves as a bitter reproach of such bloody history.
- ‘Halloween in the Anthropocene, 2015’ by Craig Santos Perez – this poem examines the differences between Halloween experienced by the privileged and underprivileged.
- ‘All Hallows’ by Louise Glück – this poem hones in on the death that precedes the arrival of Halloween.
- ‘Halloween Party’ by Kenn Nesbitt – this poem is a much more lighthearted look at the holiday as seen through nostalgia for adolescence.