Late dusk gives way to early night and cold,
Thanksgiving’s twilight stillness now distilled
Into the dark bare clarities of fall,
The maple, grape, and pansy, louring cloud,
Stark harvests of all seasons and all souls,
The pumpkin’s square-toothed grin of pulp and rind
Illumined by the candle in the seed,
Apple and muscadine both mellow grown
Before the frost makes pale its ghostly hosts,
November emblems whose deep peace is this
Brief armistice of gardens and the stars.
And so the old new year begins in death
When spirits breathe and things expel their breath
Until the shortest day’s low winter sun
Heightens the long prime clash of ice and light,
Our bounty’s ripened blight at last undone,
Fermented bins and barrels overflowed
Below the watered heavens where we gaze
Like Dionysus rising in the vine,
Late scholars rapt and baffled by the fire
That leads all swains and wise men to the same
First upper room in which they take and make
Plain sacraments of common grape and grain.
We wake to sweat and heartbeats uncontrolled,
Disoriented like a patient wheeled
From surgery, still half-anesthetized,
Then struggle to resume a troubled reign
Over black depths, the primal under-mind,
Sheer terror and unguardedness combined.
We watch until the dawn and world return,
Familiar walls and pictures, windows, chairs,
Our native shades, each fixed in its own place
Against those twisted images that rose
Like wild Leviathans to break and sound
Out of oblivion’s gulfs and range unbound.
Good sense and senses gathered once again,
Stark dread now sunk back down to its dark source,
We censor or dismiss the horrid scenes,
Long kisses from a hated face we crave,
Beloved kin we murder unawares,
Doors opening on depthless shadow-stairs.
Yet though we say we live in modern times
Unhaunted but in play at Halloween,
We still know nightmares, waking or asleep,
New holocausts, the broken, last taboos,
At every house with black bags that appall.
After a Picture by J-F. Millet (1814-75)
Her back against a talus topped with trees
Whose new-growth leaves and limbs have long been stripped
High as a sheep can reach, bare as her staff,
She seems as sheer and stiff as bank and trunk.
Her long plain dress and face, cape, hood, and shoes
Emerge from wastes surrounding
This over-cropped and well downtrodden turf,
Grim given no skilled rendering dispels.
A fallen branch lies blanched as cattle bones.
Two ewes snuggle for warmth where no grass grows.
Others pull frosted roots up where the sun
Grazes in winter dusk on frozen dew.
A draftsman mastering what he loved and knew,
First fully realized here in theme, technique,
He sensed at last his art’s profoundest ground,
The pastoral raised to epic dignity.
Middleton, David. “Poems.” The New Compass: A Critical Review 2 (December 2003) <http://www.thenewcompass.ca/dec2003/middleton.html>