The Stranger

Above the dark hill in the still Spanish night,
The moon, a lone fountain of watery light,
Demurely ascends, as she hides her fair face
Behind misty veils of gossamer lace.

Below, the small village lies dead as a tomb;
Its few humble dwellings, enshrouded in gloom,
Emit not a sound as the night hours wear on
But for an occasional sigh or soft yawn.

Who enters the village at so late an hour
Emerging from darkness, beneath the bell tower?
He crosses the plaza, his donkey beside,
And slowly moves on, like the incoming tide,

Enveloped in shadows, he winds through the town
With slow, somber pace, like a watch running down.
Past wide open windows and old weathered doors,
Down murky back alleys the moonbeam ignores.

So grim and foreboding a figure, he seems
Some boogie man born from the townspeoples´ dreams!
Yet no one responds with a sense of alarm,
As if this strange visitor meant them some harm,

For all lie like corpses, and no one takes note
Of this one invading their world so remote,
Their hamlet to which hardly anyone goes,
Whose name and location no wayfarer knows.

He passes beyond the last house and moves on
Into the wide fields where the first light of dawn
Shines dimly upon the tall grass laced with frost
And soon disappears, every trace of him lost.

But can he be lost whom no one has yet known?
For none stirred awake as he walked all alone
Sepulchrally silent, like some passing ghost
Across the whole village from pillar to post.

The visitor, nameless and faceless, has gone,
His dark figure fled with the light of the dawn;
A new day begun, life goes on just the same
For those in the town… as if he never came!

 

 

The Night of Solitude

Under the starless sky so wide
I walked for miles in solitude,
Without a partner by my side
To lighten my despondent mood.

Through open fields and gloomy wood,
Beneath the somber owl’s eye,
I walked in search of some lost good,
My heart as empty as the sky.

Until I raised my head and saw
A radiant star come down from space,
Whose shining made the night withdraw;
I looked again—it was your face!

 

Martin Rizley grew up in Oklahoma and in Texas, and has served in pastoral ministry both in the United States and in Europe. He is currently serving as the pastor of a small evangelical church in the city of Málaga on the southern coast of Spain, where he lives with his wife and daughter. Martin has enjoyed writing and reading poetry as a hobby since his early youth.

 


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25 Responses

  1. Ravichandar

    Solitude …
    Pangs of loneliness
    Claws up the soul
    Emptiness seeps thro heart
    Watching owl ..gloomy wood
    I enjoyed the poem with a thoughtwalk ….in the woods..enjoyed it..

    Reply
    • Martin Rizley

      Thank you, Ravichandar, for expressing your enjoyment of the second poem! I am glad it “resonated” with you and took on what you very poetically call a “thoughtwalk”– I like that word.

      Reply
  2. James A. Tweedie

    Martin,

    Nicely framed poems that create and carry a mood effectively.

    In The Stranger, I particularly enjoyed the phrase “sepulchrally silent.”

    And yet the poem, itself, leaves me ambivalent. The storyline, as I read it, is this: “An unidentified man with a donkey walks through a small village, unnoticed, while everyone is asleep.”

    Why should I care? Why is this worth the trouble to write a poem? There is no tension, no conflict, no meaning, no paradox (worth worrying about), and no identifiable metaphor. The poem seems to be little more than a riff on the old saw about a tree falling in the forest and does it make a sound if no one is there to hear it?

    I can relate to the Night of Solitude in that I have taken many late-night walks of that sort. I did, however, trip over “owl” serving as a two-syllable word. To represent my own experience, I would have ended the poem with the line, “God’s loving and redeeming grace.” (although the “face” in the poem could very well be interpreted as being the face of God–in which case, as a devotional poem, I might have capitalized “Your” to make that more apparent). As it stands, the phrase “your face” appears to refer to your spouse or beloved.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Your complaint about “The Stranger” touches upon a major fault in all literary modernism — namely, the assumption that a momentary epiphany or some transient perception can be the basis of a poem. For years I have been trying to convince those who seek to compose in the traditional, formalist manner that YOU CAN’T DO IT PROPERLY if you are going to unconsciously accept the basic tenets of a modernist aesthetic. Little epiphanies and minor perceptions are dead ends. No one wants to read them, except perhaps other modernist poets.

      Mr. Tweedie, your comment is right on target. Why should readers care about a man walking through a village at night with his donkey? What does it mean? What is it all about? Why is the poet giving us nine quatrains on it?

      But the regnant modernism that dictates poetic practice today tells us that this is the only way to write serious poetry. The entire purpose of the SCP is to give the lie to that dictate.

      Reply
      • Martin Rizley

        Dr. Salemi,
        It certainly was not my intention to write a “modernist” poem. As I said to James Tweedie, even though my purpose in writing was primariy to create a “mood picture,” I was hoping that the images and the phrases used might “hint at” or “suggest” a theme. Sultana Raza mentioned “The Listeners” and the fact is I thought of that poem while writing this one. When you think of it, De la Mare never states expressly of his poem. Moreover, very little happens in the poem. A man comes to a house late at night, knocks at the door and some strange “beings” inside the house listen to him, without ever answering. Then he rides off. What is the poem about? If there is theme, it is only hinted at– but doesn´t that very ambiguity suggest the poem´s theme? As one literary critic puts it, the Listeners “draws much of its eerie quality from the fact that its meaning is rather opaque; the poem in many ways defies interpretation precisely because it is about the unknown and the unknowable. Somewhat paradoxically, “The Listeners” acknowledges people’s desire to seek understanding while also asserting a certain insurmountable mystery of the world around them.”

    • Martin Rizley

      Thank you for your feedback, James, and for giving me an honest critique.

      Regarding the second poem, the lack of context admittedly leaves a measure of ambiguity as to who is being addressed. This poem was actually written to my wife at the time that I proposed to her.

      The first poem was an attempt to create the poetic equivalent to what Romantic composers used to call “mood pictures”– small miniatures for piano aimed at painting a scene and creating a mood. In this case, the mood I wished to evoke was one I used to feel often when I would drive home late at night through the Spanish countryside after a speaking engagement in another town. On the drive home, I would pass through tiny towns in which the inhabitants were mostly asleep, and if I stopped for gasoline or to get coffee at a local café that was still open, I would be struck by the eerie emptiness and quietness of the streets at that hour, and by my own “alien presence” in a town whose inhabitants were totally unknown to me as I was to them.

      The fact I was aiming at a mood picture is not to say the poem lacks a theme, however; only its theme is only suggested, not stated, and that is that there is something strangely mysterious about the limitations of our knowledge in a vast world that far transcends our ability, not only to comprehend, but even to perceive. Mysteries “pass us by in the night” and we know them not, because we are “asleep” to them. But they are there, nevertheless, for our perception is not the measure of reality; and I think that is something that a society so self-assured in its knowledge and so immersed in scientism needs to consider. The fact something lies beyond reason´s ability to understand or our human senses´ ability to perceive does not mean it lacks reality. Contrary to the thinking of the Enlightenment, man is not the measure of all things. Rather, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        “Man is the measure of all things” is not a maxim of the European Enlightenment, but a saying of the sophist Protagoras. It is usually understood as an early expression concerning the relativism of human perceptions. It doesn’t apply to poetry, except perhaps as the idea that all interpretations of a poem are nothing but “reader response.”

        All I was saying was that in a verbal artifact such as a poem, the refusal to make any kind of statement at all, or give the reader any rational guidance, is a sign of modernism. Mood pieces may be fine in music or in still-life painting, but in poetry they come across as declining to make use of language for its primary purpose: intelligibility.

      • David Gosselin

        Dear Martin,

        I have to very much agree with Mr. Tweedie and Salemi. The poem doesn’t really have a story or purpose. To create a genuine feeling piece of some sort, which would have more of a musical idea, like many of Poe’s early pieces, you’d need some magic, some irony, something that speaks to the soul.

        It looks like you went looking for something to write, rather than letting the poetry find you. That should always be avoided. One should prefer to wait as long as he needs to, even if it never comes, rather than relish in a poetic dalliance – this is at the heart of modernism and contemporary thinking. Regardless of the form your poem took, it suffers from the same kind of problem faced by many modern artists and critics.

        I do recommend a great article by the poet Paul Gallagher. He begins his essay:

        “St. Augustine, the founder of Western Christian civilization, wrote, of poetry:

        The purpose of it is to lead young people of ability, and perhaps older people too, gradually, with Reason for our guide, from the things of sense, to God, in order that they may cling to Him who rules all and governs our intelligence, with no mediating Nature between. … It is the ascent from rhythm in sense, to the immortal rhythm which is in truth. (De musica)

        Great poetry describes what is visible and sensible, emotional, in such a way that we think—ascend—to the invisible, the eternal—”with no mediating Nature between”—while, being mortals, we keep still the visible and sensible Nature, being transformed in our mind at the same time.”
        https://www.thechainedmuse.com/single-post/2019/05/13/John-Keats-vs-The-Enlightenment

        With all that said, I don’t think the criticism given by the others above only applies to your piece. I think a lot of pieces written in formal verse today have a similar problem. Special attention is given to the language, words, meter and imagery–whether free-verse or formal verse–but there is a complete dearth of idea. Contrast that with someone like Heinrich Heine. Regardless of how simple, how few quatrains his poems were made up of, there was always some beautiful irony, a metaphor, something compelling that surprises the reader and shows them that what they thought they knew or expected, was wrong.

        I think you need to find yourself in some sort of crisis, something that compels you to write. Heine, Keats, Shelley, Dante, Poe et al. all had this.

        I reference the article above because I love how it makes the higher mission orientation of poets so clear, and that it connects that mission with something eternal and unchanging, something selfless. In particular, it paints a very compelling picture the crisis faced by Keats, the crisis of his time, and the crisis within himself. The struggle was so great, and the odds against him were so great, and yet, one of the most creative bursts of creativity in art took place.

        I am aware that in the Chinese language, the word crisis also means opportunity.

        I wish you a great crisis!

        Best,

        David Gosselin

  3. Sultana Raza

    Martin, I don’t know what your intentions, if any, were when you wrote the first poem. I’m sure Mr Salemi is right in his comments. At the same time, I couldn’t help interpreting your poem in a different way: perhaps the ghostly man is one of the gods of dreams, the Oneiroi, possibly Phobetor, the god of nightmares because he’s ‘grim and foreboding….. a boogie man…’ Since he’s on a donkey, perhaps his dreams are not taken seriously by the people of this village. (Additionally, perhaps the villagers are hard-working folk, who don’t remember their dreams in the morning, unlike poets who tend to have and remember vivid dreams…). In any case, one supposes there’s a mystery in your poem about the identity and intentions of the boogie man. (Though it’s very different, I’m reminded of Walter de la Mare’s ‘The Listeners’ which has unresolved mysteries as well).
    Your poem is rich in images, specially the first stanza, and has certainly created a strong atmosphere. I also appreciate the image chosen by the editorial team, specially as the artist seems to have created an eye in the sky with the moon as the pupil. So one is inclined to ask if the moon is the narrator of this poem? I daresay your first poem gives at least one reader the chance to interact with it at various levels.

    Reply
    • Martin Rizley

      Thank you so much for your feedback. As I mentioned to Dr. Salemi in my reply to him, I was actually thinking of the Listeners when I wrote my poem– especially the way that de la Mare creates a mood of mystery through the use of ambiguity and unanswered questions. My words to James Tweedie above give a background to my poem and explain what I was trying to express. I am glad that you enjoyed it and were able to interact with it at various levels.

      Reply
      • Sultana Raza

        My apologies to Dr Salemi for not using his title properly. I was too engrossed in responding to the poem to notice it when writing my first comments. No disrespect was intended to anyone, in case I make similar mistakes in future.

  4. C.B. Anderson

    Well, yes, Martin, the first poem was so mysterious that I failed to unravel the mystery. And you manged to sneak in quite a number of metrical substitutions in what appears to be intended as an iambically constructed poem. At this point, I don’t care about any of that, but I do like meter that is unambiguous.

    In the second poem, the only structural defect was, as I think someone already pointed out, was making “owl’s” a two-syllable word. Regarding the content, each and every reader will have to decide for him- or herself whether the face of one’s beloved appearing in the sky is really a productive or satisfying image.

    Reply
    • Martin Rizley

      Well. C.B., I have to admit that you and the others have a point about the excessive ambiguity of the poem. Perhaps I was so focused on creating a mood, I failed in the process to make clear an underlying theme, thus leaving everyone scratching their heads from reading a poem that seems to be going somewhere, then ends too abrubtly to make clear sense. Perhaps, too, I was mistaken in thinking a poem can be like a piece of music or a landscape painting, which gives pleasure without making an explicit point, But as Dr. Salemi rightly points out– and I agree with him on this–, the primary purpose of language is intelligibility. If the poem as it stands does not suggest clearly enough to the reader an underlying them to people, then if I failed in the area of intelligibility and need to rework the poem. I think it is salvageable if I rewrite it in such a way as to bring out more clearly the underlying theme– perhaps by an additional stanza or two that drives home the “point” of the poem.

      As far as the meter of the poem, although it is mixed– one iamb followed by three anapests in every line (almost, but not quite, anapestic tetrameter)– the “beat” of the poem is really strong when read aloud. It rolls along with metronomic regularity, as anapestic meter does, so I don´t really see a problem with the meter, except in the first stanza, where I have used the final “l” sound of the word “veil” as the first unstressed syllable of an anapest– which is a no no.

      Reply
  5. Rod Walford

    Hello Martin. I think Ravi has coined a nice description with the word “thoughtwalk” as that’s just how I felt too. There might be a couple of technical issues which I’m sure won’t go unnoticed by some but I have to say I enjoyed the mystery and felt like I was creeping along behind just keeping an eye on things! For me, the enigma didn’t need a great unveiling – it was just a journey. It put me in mind of Zorro returning from a mission actually – until you made mention of a donkey! Nice work.

    Reply
    • Martin Rizley

      Rod, thank you for your comments. I must say, you have put into words the thought process I had when I wrote the poem. I really did not feel the need to “unveil the enigma” concerning the stranger´s identity, purpose or destination. In fact, I wanted to keep all that ambiguous, so as to focus on the winding “journey” and thus evoke the sense of mystery in a sleeping Spanish town at night. It never occured to me that I might be committing a “modernist sin” by such ambiguity. Although as I said to C.B. Anderson, I do think the poem could be improved by adding some closing lines that give a stronger hint as to an underlying theme– as does the closing couplet of Frost´s “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

      Reply
  6. Martin Rizley

    In response to the valued critiques above, I´ve composed one more stanza that could be appended to “The Stranger,” to give the poem a stronger ending hinting at an underlying theme. I´m still undecided, but here it is:

    How strange this vast world, filled with mysteries deep!
    Beyond what we sense when awake or asleep,
    Beyond our perception, there´s always much more–
    Enigmas that walk in the night past our door!

    Reply
  7. David Watt

    I say well done Martin for responding to constructive comments and coming up with a stanza which provides a more definitive ending for ‘The Stranger”.

    Imagery and mood creation are always a highlight of your poetry.

    Reply
  8. Rod

    Oh Martin now I’ll have insomnia and keep peeping through a crack in the curtains! Nice finish

    Reply
  9. Lew Icarus Bede

    How strange it is how various individuals respond, in this case, to the poem, “The Stranger” by Mr. Rizley. And stranger yet, at least in my mind, are the reasons for those responses.

    First off, unlike Mr. Tweedie, I liked the poem, perhaps because I relate to it so deeply. How often have I felt like a stranger to this land, to this generation, to this planet, to this universe. I liked the nostalgic village setting, and recently wrote just such a poem about a man on a horse drawn sleigh coming into a village at night.

    Secondly, unlike Mr. Salemi, I think mood pieces are fine. I do feel the poem falls into that romantic strain of Modernism that included figures, such as Frost and, as Ms. Raza pointed out, De La Mare.

    Thirdly, unlike Mr. Gosselin, I do not care about the motives for writing a piece; it is the “artifact” that concerns me.

    Fourthly, unlike Mr. Anderson, I did not read the poem iambically, but rather anapestically. I have for a long time felt that the anapestic tetrameter partially answered the “crisis” of some of the figures in mainstream Romanticism.

    Fifthly, unlike other commenters, I like the ending where it is.

    Finally, one thing I wish, having read your comments, is that you could have set the scene with your automobile, and still have managed to attain that “eternal” feeling of mystery.

    Reply
    • Martin Rizley

      Thank you, L.I. Bede, for your comments! I feel like you understood what I was aiming at and appreciated the poem for what it is– a mood poem whose aim was to appeal more to the emotions than to the analytical faculty. .I was not trying to make a profound statement, but rather, to paint a picture that evokes an atmosphere of mystery, while hinting perhaps at an underlying theme without stating it directly. You mentioned Frost and De la Mare as masters of this sort of poem. What else is “The Listeners” but a mood poem? Or “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening”? The main appeal of such poems is in their imagery and mood, although they may hint at something deeper. If the Stranger hints at any theme, I think it would be that which I have stated–the limited character of our knowledge of that which lies beyond our reach and our senses. The people in the town are oblivious to the presence of the stranger in the night as he passes by their open windows, and when they awake, he is gone. The mystery passed them by in the night, and they knew it not! The poem could thereby invite the reader to consider the limitations of his own knowledge. The natural tendency of knowledge is to make us proud, but the awareness of mystery in the world tends to instill humility.

      Reply
  10. Sultana Raza

    Sorry to come in so late, but your poem has stayed in my mind. I’m probably in a minority, but I liked your poem just as it was, without the need for an additional stanza. I’ll go so far to say that if we can’t really determine the century or the decade, it makes a poem all the more timeless. I’m not sure that The Listeners is just a mood poem, as it can be interpreted in so many ways. There is a story there, though we don’t know it’s beginning or ending. I like a bit of mystery in poems. For example, many scholars have been wondering about Keats’s ‘This Living Hand,’ and what it could mean for years. (I’ve added 3 recent articles that mention this poem in the comments section of my article on Keats).

    Reply
  11. Martin Rizley

    Thank you, Ms. Raza, for your comments on the poem. You have responded sympathetically the aim of the poem, which was simply to create an atmosphere of mystery through words and images. Perhaps in that there is an element of “modernism” of which I was unaware– I had tended to equate modernism with meaningless “stream of thought” effusions that ignore all rules of grammar and syntax. If the poem is modernistic because of its focus on mood rather than on discursive logic, all I can say is that there is much enjoyable poetry that seems to have been written with no higher aim than this– to provide the “armchair traveller” with a literary flight to other worlds, to places long ago or far away (Coleridge’s Kubla Khan comes to mind) in order to awaken memories, stir up feelings or instil a mood through beautiful, scary, mysterious, nostalgic or humorous images– simply for the purpose of enjoyment.

    Reply
    • Sultana Raza

      Martin, I daresay it’s not all that easy to create a mood or an atmosphere in a poem. The Romantics at least appreciated atmosphere, as is evident in their paintings, for example. Though much has been written on Keats’s Ode to a Grecian Urn, and Ode on Indolence, both of them succeed in creating certain kinds of atmosphere. For example, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem Moose, (which rhymes till she says ‘good-bye)’ can also be said to be a mood piece, as is Rilke’s Autumn Day (suitable for the current quarantine too). I’ve given a translation below, though it may not be the best one:
      Herbsttag Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

      Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
      Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
      und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

      Befiel den letzen Früchten voll zu sein;
      gieb ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage
      dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
      die letze Süße in den schweren Wein.

      Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
      Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
      wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
      und wird in den Alleen hin und her
      unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

      Written in Paris on September 21st, 1902

      (1) AUTUMN DAY

      Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
      Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
      and on the meadows let the wind go free.

      Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
      grant them a few more transparent days,
      urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
      the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

      Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
      Whoever is alone will stay alone,
      will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
      and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
      restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

      Reply
  12. Martin Rizley

    I love this poem! It creates an autumnal atmosphere that is piercingly poignant.
    I love the way it combines an emphasis on the “final sweetness” that ripening brings, with an emphasis on the sad losses that come with advancing age. A bittersweet gem of writing that I found quite moving. Thanks for sharing it.

    Reply

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