Poetry Sunday: “How Attractive, then, the Nightmare Skeleton,” by Elizabeth Murawksi

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I met Elizabeth Murawski when we read together at the Virginia Festival of the Book in 2010, the year her book was released by Utah University Press and won the May Swenson Poetry Award. I haven’t seen her since, but I feel connected to her through reading her poems; she is a prolific poet, and it is easy to find her work online and in current issues of many literary journals.

I’d been wanting to feature one of Murawski’s poems for some time, and when I came across this one, I thought it would make a great subject for a Halloween feature. At the risk of revising your own imagining of a nightmare skeleton, I include one here that turned up on a Google search.

“How Attractive, then, the Nightmare Skeleton” is unrhymed free verse organized into eight couplets, all but the last of about the same length. The first three lines are iambic, that is, the meter rises in a pattern that looks and sounds like te DUM te DUM te DUM, but afterwards switches to something that looks more trochaic. (Trochaic meter, you may recall, is a falling meter that looks and sounds like DUM te DUM te DUM te DUM te.) Within these broad strokes occur many variations, and in the end, all you can say is that most lines have four beats, and the meter reverses somewhere about midway through the poem. The effect is herky-jerky, the way you might describe the movements of—you guessed it—a nightmare skeleton. I am thinking now of that wonderfully appalling scene in House on Haunted Hill in which Vincent Price manipulates a real skeleton like a string puppet.

Today’s poem eschews end rhyme, but there are instances of assonance within lines, such as “zygote size” in line 1. That, by the way, is also an interesting example of what I have heard called “reverse rhyme,” where one word is followed by another inverting its sound, as in “ten” and “net” or “but” and “tub.” Another striking example of internal near rhyme occurs in line 13’s “door to door Fred Astaire.” You’ll find numerous examples within couplets, like red/dread in lines 1-2, away/they in lines 3-4, south/north and east/west in lines 7-8, and zygote/nightmare in lines 11-12. These sound repetitions help string the lines and couplets together, but once again, the deliberate lack of pattern in the way they are deployed helps reinforce the poem’s central image of a skeleton jerkily moving along in a ghastly dance routine.

We begin in medias res, with the speaker describing what she sees, smells, and fears in—what? A memory? A recurrent nightmare? Walls and floor are green and red, a clash of primary colors that is an early sign that something is not quite right here. The feeling of uneasiness is reinforced almost immediately in line 2’s wonderfully apt image of “a rabbit hole of dread.” The next image is olfactory, “a whiff / of cauldron,” and shows the power of a well-chosen word (actually two): “whiff” and “cauldron” place us immediately in the context of some horror beyond the connotations of everyday “dread.” We can dread a test or doing our taxes, but this, people, is dread of a wholly different magnitude. An interesting verb tense change, from the past of “thought” to the present of “here they are again” takes this narrative out of recollection or dream and into now, so that the speaker is back in it, reliving it.

“Here they are again” also draws our interest because we have no idea who “they” are; the pronoun has no antecedent, and one effect is to build the suspense already established by the not-quite-right setting. We never really do learn who “they” are, but the poem does provide the raw materials from which it is possible to construct a few theories. Mine is that “they” are the speaker’s parents, who like a good angel and bad devil at either shoulder, whisper conflicting advice and, in effect, divide her in two.

Next, the speaker says something truly bizarre: “I taste the grass.” What this means is up for grabs, but there is no denying the weirdness it injects into an already-creepy poem. “I let them win” is perhaps easier to interpret, but it also ups the ante of dread. That and the lines which follow teach us that, at odds as they may be with one another, “they” are united in being something the speaker violently opposes, the north to her south, the west to her east.

“They are a threat to no one” surprises us, because this “they” seems very threatening indeed, but meaning resolves after the line break, into “They are a threat to no one but myself.” The threat is dire, no less than “annihilation,” the speaker shrinking like Alice in her Wonderland. This is Alice’s second appearance in the poem, by the way; the first was in line 2’s “rabbit hole” of dread.

At this point in the poem, a little over halfway, there is a change. The meter flips from mostly iambic to mostly trochaic and—right in the middle of stanza 6—the speaker shifts strategies, moving from a recounting of how things were to an explanation of why she is drawn to a vision most people would fear:

How attractive, then, the nightmare

Skeleton, door to door Fred Astaire
Crooking one long calcium finger


What is “the dance” mentioned in the poem’s last line?  Perhaps it is the dance of mortality, and one reading might be a memory of childhood trauma so terrible it results in a kind of death wish on the part of the speaker. Or, maybe it is simply a willingness to engage with the dark issues most people cannot even admit exist, the poetic equivalent of “The horror! The horror!” (Kurtz’s dying words in Heart of Darkness). In other words, the kind of crucible perspective that smelts an ordinary into an artistic sensibility. Some might call such a perspective warped, but Emily Dickinson called it “telling it slant.” At a minimum, the poem speaks from a place of deep existential pain and ambivalence, capturing our worst, least-articulated fears, the things that go bump in the night and trouble the sleep of us all. Happy Halloween, everyone!

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