Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “All Hallows Eve, Edgewater Inn,”
by Catherine Clark-Sayles

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

“All Hallows Eve, Edgewater Inn” is a formal poem, organized into metrical quatrains using patterned end rhyme. The meter is mostly iambic pentameter, five beats per line in a rising te-dem te-dum te-dum te-dum te-dum pattern. There are some variations: line 2 uses trochees that create a falling (trochaic) rather than rising meter, and lines 9 and 16 arguably have only four beats while lines 14 and 22 arguably have 6.

The rhyme scheme likewise varies, but every stanza has some form of it if we allow that end rhymes need not be full but can include slant (or “near”) rhyme. In the first two stanzas, end rhyme sonically pairs first and last lines (“stillness” with “focus” and “shore” with “liqueur”). In stanza 3, first and third lines rhyme (“stars” and “rise”). Stanza 4 introduces another variation, rhyming “gone” with “shine” in the second and third lines. Stanza 5 returns to the pattern of stanza 3, rhyming first and third lines (“hour” with “bartender”). The final stanza strikes a new template, rhyming second and fourth lines (“meat” with “tonight”). Using prime number syllables to indicated slant rather than whole rhymes, the scheme as a whole can be represented as abxa’ abxa’ aba’x abb’x abxb’. End rhyme is patterned, then, without being regular, existing in a kind of wandering, quixotic form perhaps intended to enact the offbeat quirkiness of the people and place the poem describes.

“All Hallows Eve” is exceptionally rich in sound repetitions within and among its lines: assonance, consonance, and internal rhymes, in many cases more than one device working in the same series of words. For example, breathing beast uses assonance, the same long -ee- sound in both words, as well as initial consonance in those percussive b sounds. Likewise, the -eas- sound of “beast” slant rhymes with “focus” later on in line 2 and with “stillness” in the preceding line. Another example of sound saturation occurs in lines 12-13:

as smoke, wheel as one—again, again.

They make arcane devotion to the guttered gleam.

In line 12, “as one” slant rhymes with “again,” twice when “again” is repeated, and the terminal nasal sound of “again” returns in line 13’s “arcane” and “devotion.” “Guttered gleam” is a brilliant example of sound wedded to sense, the guttural consonant sounds of those hard g’s enacting sonically, in a kind of synesthesia, what we see when a candle begins to wink out. That is, we hear as well as see the candles sputtering out.

Another example of this writer’s facility with sound is in line 15’s “The bay: a beaten sheet of matte and shine.” Besides initial consonance, “beaten” has assonance with “sheet” and also slant rhymes with “shine.” What a gorgeous image, conjured for both the eye and ear, one of those lines I wish I had written myself. The poem has many moments like this, where sound and sense work together to forge an image of uncanny power.

“All Hallows Eve” is a narrative poem with lyrical elements, telling a story from the first-person point of view by a speaker haunting a bar on Halloween. The “I” does not enter until line 5, and the first quatrain seems intended to set the scene. It does so by reporting on the landscape outside the bar, viewed through a window. The October bay is laid out before us in all its “sequined” glory, together with the reflections it triggers in the reader: a sense of another year turning over and an awareness that this night is one where the dead make themselves felt. The second stanza picks up and puns on the idea of the “dead” by mentioning “spirits” (another name for the hard liquor served by the bar). The punning continues with “tonight I’ll borrow a passing fog,” referring to what Bay Area residents here call “Carl” (the fog that comes in at night to blanket our bay) and also to those wonderful bar drinks that can blur and blanket our consciousness. This speaker, we discover, has a sense of humor. Besides making the poem more fun, the humor serves a strategic deflationary purpose by preventing the nature images from becoming too gushy. Clark-Sayles keeps melodrama at bay, too, by keeping the “sorrow” unspecified and assigning its expected modifier (“bitter-sweet”) to the “liqueur” being downed by the speaker.

Stanza 3 brings us back to the natural beauty seen through the window: “while grackles fall like darkened stars.” It’s another great example of sound working with sense, and the chiming of -le sounds in “while,” “grackles,” and “fall,” the assonance of “darkened stars,” and the precision of “twos and fives, then dozens” fill me with delight. So does what comes next—a series of stressed, one-syllable verbs reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins: “break,” “rise,” “smoke,” and “wheel.” The next two lines may be my favorites:

Egg of orange fire, horizon-balanced then gone.
The bay: a beaten sheet of matte and shine

Anyone who doesn’t hear Hopkins in that second line above has not read “The Windhover.” (And, dear reader, if you haven’t, please do read it here now.)

The next two lines, the last of stanza 4 and the first of stanza 5, introduce a variation in pacing:

lifts the ship that slowly swings

around its anchor, points the ebbing hour

From the quick, staccato sprung rhythms of lines that came before, the poem downshifts into almost aching slowness, accomplished by means of that hard stanza-break enjambment. Enjambment, the running of the sense of one line onto the next, normally speeds things up. But when enjambment carries a line across stanzas, it creates an effect akin to deceleration.

That paves the way for what comes next, a turning away from the natural landscape outside and back inside. “Points the ebbing hour” and “Tonight—a  night for fires” reorient us to when and where we are: Halloween at sunset, in a bar. An unusual word and an example of this author’s facility with diction, “gnomon” refers to the vertical part of a sundial. The precision of the image is wonderful, and it makes us think of the word “gnome,” something that feels right for Halloween. With “huddling in,” the poem completes the turn inward, shifting its gaze back into the bar and into the speaker’s perceptions of the people she sees there, dressed up as Buddy Holly, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis.

Once again, the descriptions are vivid, with action (wearing a white halter dress, curling a lip) carrying the details. A sense of smell invoked by “fragrant” and of warmth invoked by “fires” contribute to an impression of vitality and community inside the bar. Together, these strategies conjure the same glow that the speaker is by now, we suspect, feeling from her drink. “All Hallows Eve, Edgewater Inn” is both an occasional poem about Halloween and a pastoral poem, one where a speaker’s contemplation of a natural landscape triggers inner reflection. I love its lyricism, achieved largely through artful modulation of the poem’s formal figurative elements, and also the power, beauty, and precision of remarkable images. Happy Halloween, everyone!

 

 

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