For someone whose least favorite holiday is Halloween, I’ve recently spent a lot of time watching monsters on the screen. First, I became hooked on HBO’s Lovecraft Country (yes, I know, I’m late to the party on this one). When that series ended, I decided it was time to watch Just Mercy. I knew this one would be difficult to watch, and with good reason had not been able to bring myself to watch. Both the series and the movie brought me to tears. It’s that time of year.
As I write this, a tiny butterfly has landed on the screen beside my window seat. Smaller than my thumb, it’s translucent wings rapidly open and close as it clings to the screen, clings to life. Here in the North Carolina mountains temperatures have already dropped into the low 30s. There are no blooms left on the butterfly bushes. I’ve deadheaded the three bushes. Plummeting temperatures killed the chrysanthemums.
Soon, the butterfly will also be gone. But this afternoon it is wildly, passionately alive.
And late roses still bloom. New buds open daily on the potted hibiscus outside my window. This is the season of contradictions, season of magic, season of daylight hours growing shorter, season of brilliant light. It is the season of remembering those no longer on this earth. It is the “thin” season when the veil between this world and the next becomes gossamer.
It is also the season of monsters, ghosts, and goblins. I’ve always had an affinity for the non-human monsters. Mostly, I think they’re misunderstood and often abused. Different, larger than life, and non-human so they are to be feared. I cheered for the non-human monsters in Lovecraft Country as they ripped into the very real human monsters. There were also a fair number of the dead returning to life, seemingly with all the human contradictions that had been part of their life in this world before death transformed them.
The monsters in Just Mercy were all human, and brought back memories from the last century. In Fayetteville, NC, a 16-year-old black boy was convicted of rape and murder, primarily on the basis of his “confession.” Under intense pressure from police, the boy said, “you say I’m guilty. You prove it.” A dangerous, smart-ass answer that the police and prosecutor shortened to, “I’m guilty, you prove it.” The young man spent seven years in prison before his conviction was overturned, and charges dismissed. It took the surreptitious work of a couple of policemen who believed they had convicted the wrong person, and an attorney with a passion for justice and mercy to free the young man.
In a poem in my new poetry collection, I question whether I too am a monster. I know that I can be. I know that I’m capable of cruelty. There have been times in my life when I felt like a monster, and probably more times when others considered me to be a monster.
Monsters come in all forms and not all are destructive or cruel. Beauty and the Beast gives us a distorted look at what is beauty and what is beastly. Watching the musical Wicked, I identified with Elphaba, The Wicked Witch of the West. Through the re-telling of the plots from several of the brothers Grimm’s Fairytales, the play Into the Woods showed us how high a price we might pay for dreams that come true.
We humans are complex creatures, capable of great love and kindness, and also capable of monstrous cruelty. But as we approach these holidays of Halloween or All Hallows Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day, I’m thinking about the more benign monsters and the ghosts that never really leave, especially in this season, in this light. As I wrote the poems for When There Were Horses, I learned to embrace and welcome the ghosts in my life. And so, I leave you with a poem by Raymond Carver:
The dusk of evening come on. Earlier a little rain
had fallen. You open a drawer and find inside
the man’s photograph, knowing he has only two years
to live. He doesn’t know this, of course,
that’s why he can mug for the camera.
How could he know what’s taking root in his head
at that moment? If one looks to the right
through boughs and tree trunks, there can be seen
crimson patches of the after-glow. No shadows, no
half-shadows. It is still and damp…
The man goes on mugging. I put the picture back
in its place along with the others and give
my attention instead to the after-glow along the far ridge,
light golden on the roses in the garden.
Then, I can’t help myself, I glance once more
at the picture. The wink, the broad smile,
the jaunty slant of the cigarette.
—Raymond Carver, from A New Path to the Waterfall