Since it’s Halloween week, I became fairly obsessed with the idea of finding a poem for you today that would meet certain requirements. It had to be fairly high up on the creepiness scale, it had to convey the way in which the suddenly vacant landscape of autumn can be just a little bit unsettling, and it had to contain a ghost or haunting of some sort. That was a tall order, and I searched and searched before I found “All Hallows,” written by Louise Gluck, a Pulitzer prize-winning contemporary poet born in 1943 whose careful use of imagery and sparse language truly captures the feeling of both the holiday and the season. I’d never read it before, but it has lingered with me over the last few days, and I knew it would be perfect for today’s post. I was so fascinated by this poem, in fact, that I quickly ordered a collection of Gluck’s poetry so that I could read more.
Even now this landscape is assembling.
The hills darken. The oxen
sleep in their blue yoke,
the fields having been
picked clean, the sheaves
bound evenly and piled at the roadside
among cinquefoil, as the toothed moon rises:
This is the barrenness
of harvest or pestilence.
And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here, little one
And the soul creeps out of the tree.
The poem begins with the description of an autumn day that is just ending. We immediately become aware of the fact that the landscape is not just a passive presence, but rather it is an active force that is “assembling.” We also know that it’s after harvest because the oxen are resting, the fields have been “picked clean,” and there is a “toothed moon” on the rise. The sleeping oxen and empty fields immediately convey a sense of isolation and loneliness, and there is something sinister in the idea of the moon having teeth. Rather than seeing harvest as a time of abundance, Gluck equates it with “barrenness,” or, worse yet, “pestilence,” giving us the sense that there is more to the emptiness here than just what we’re seeing in the landscape. This idea of barrenness extends into the next series of images which move us from the outside in, to where we see a wife calling to a child she has lost. Since she seems to be offering some kind of payment, and one that is valuable since it is “gold,” we speculate as to whether she’s unable to have more children, and is consequently haunted by the spirit of the only one she’ll ever have. The final line of the poem is the one that is most unsettling, and has not left my mind since I read it. As the soul of the child comes to her, we cannot help but wonder whether she summoned it through grief alone, or through supernatural powers that she possesses, or as a reward for the payment she has offered in sacrifice. We are reminded of the fact that the membrane between worlds is always thin, but especially at this time of the year. Can it be that she is willing to give up her ability to have other children just so this one can be returned to her? No matter which answer we choose to believe, Gluck manages to weave this poem into our subconscious minds in a remarkable way since it seems so deceptively simple and short on the surface.
For today’s cocktail I knew I wanted to keep my ingredients to a minimum to match the brevity of the poem itself. I also wanted the drink to pack a powerful punch and to be something that I’d continue to think about long after I’d finished it. As luck would have it, I received a bottle of CALI Distillery’s Riptide Cask Strength Rye just last week from my generous friends Howard and Marni Witkin. It was the perfect base spirit for this drink at 118 proof and 95% rye. Over the weekend I had the opportunity to try Journeyman’s O.C.G (Old Country Goodness) Apple Cider liqueur at a local liquor store. My wheels immediately began spinning. As if they ever stop! I decided to make a variation of a Manhattan with these two spirits and a variety of bitters. I used Bitttercube and Fee Brothers for their complex spiciness, and DRAM Palo Santo for the holy wood’s professed ability to bring on visions. I tasted the drink and liked it, but found that it needed just a touch of sweetness to offset the rye’s strength. I also chose to serve it over one large cube to allow the melting ice to open the whiskey up even more. The drink captured the feeling of the poem’s distinct flavors of autumn, and its recognition of the power of loss, and the presence of the ever-compelling world that exists just beyond the one in which we live. Cheers everyone. Happy Monday!
Toothed Moon Rising
2 oz CALI Riptide Cask Strength Rye
1 oz Journeyman OCG Apple Cider liqueur
1/4 oz Turbinado simple syrup
1 dash DRAM Palo Santo bitters
1 dash Bittercube Blackstrap bitters
1 dash Fee Brothers Aromatic bitters
Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and stir with ice until cold. Strain into an old-fashioned glass over one large cube. Enjoy!