While the tradition of Halloween is long-established in Britain’s myths as a time to be feared because the parallel world of elves and spirits could invade the human world, marking the day in a jokey way by children going door to door in scary masks engaging in “trick or treat” is an American tradition that only recently crossed the Atlantic and may now be withering, since many householders resent it and many parents worry about their children. I wrote this poem maybe about three years ago when the practice was more prevalent in my neck of the woods than it seems to be now.
So there is one creative tension, between the weirdness and fear of real traditional Halloween and the kids wanting chocolate bars.
Masks create another tension. The mask says one thing, but a different, hidden face is behind it. What is the hidden face?
I think the imagery of the later part of this poem is drawn from recent brutal conflicts in the Balkans, but it could be Rwanda, Iraq or many other places – and times.
The thing has great cold staring eyes
Teeth small, sharp, regular, too regular;
Garish in burning red, shut cupboard black,
Rowing-boat green, it holds your eyes
Like headlights looming down the road
Just for a moment – it’s a mask.
If those small hands took off the cold-eyed face
A child’s eyes would be behind,
I think, and our experience shows.
But if as an unusual trick
The easy shedding of the mask
Revealed another staring mask
What streams would then begin to run?
The body with the broken belt
Dug up with a few strands of hair
Still clinging to the skull will watch,
With that same cold expression, swirls
In the dark water of the pond
Where something old begins to stir;
The broken house with marks of flame
Through the square windows holds their eyes
Who clamber to the town they knew.
We have made all things fresh, and now
Through the unmasking of the dark
Nothing will be the same.