Jack-O-Lantern by C.E. Chaffin


I carved a cat’s face in a pumpkin.
Our teeth are always breaking down.
The candle made it passable.
Dentists can cast the perfect crown.
Protect your temporary crown.
Do not chew up, do not chew down.

Light leered through almond, feline eyes,
my knife-work softened by the glow —
Dentists carve the dead stuff out.
That burning smell–you know the drill.
An orange pincushion of art,
a pumpkin right respectable.

The old gourd sagged insidiously,
the cat’s nose drooped onto its lip,
its teeth became less vertical.
Goddamn my tooth! It hurts like hell!
Pain has that burning pumpkin smell.
The candle only made it worse.

The cat’s ears narrowed into horns.
I feared the pumpkin’s softening teeth.
Decay defines our very breath.
Now frosted with a whitish mold,
its eyes narrowed with fungal scorn
as if its death had come too soon.

I found it in the garden, broken
like a cup, imploded chunks
collapsing inwards, and above
paw-prints of cats who knocked it off.
But as for toothaches, pain is pain:
Pain writes the history of the body.

C.E. Chaffin’s questions:

1) This poem employs two voices, a personal one laid over a narrative of a decaying pumpkin.  Do these voices work together or distract?

2) What would make an editor pause to consider or reject this poem?  (It’s already been rejected several times.)

3) Is the Jack-O-Lantern well realized in this poem–can you visualize it?

Reply directly to the poet:  cechaffin (at) hotmail (dot) com


  1. Carol Ayer  •  Mar 21, 2010 @7:45 am

    Hi C.E.,

    First off, please know that I still consider myself a novice at critiquing. But here are my answers to your questions:

    1. Well, I found it interesting to have the two voices. That being said, I liked the narrative of the decaying pumpkin better than the personal voice.

    2. I don’t feel qualified to answer this question.

    3. Yes, definitely. I think you did an excellent job describing the Jack-O-Lantern. Some really good imagery there.

  2. CE  •  Mar 21, 2010 @11:42 am

    Thanks, Carol. Glad the pumpkin came through–I guess trying to tie it to a toothache was a little too much? Sort of an attempt at double decay. Still, it’s an experiment, and when we stop experimenting we decline. And thanks to Scott for starting this site!

  3. Cyndi  •  Mar 28, 2010 @1:57 pm

    Hi CE,
    1. I like the two voices; I found it a little bit confusing to have the “personal” voice rhyme in some lines and not in others. The rhyming makes the italicized narrative something like a children’s song that is in the background of the narrative. You could play that up more.
    2. See above; also, the end which brings in the idea of pain is not congruous with the rest of the poem; in general, the poem is about decay, not pain, from what I can tell.
    3. The jack-o-lantern comes through very well. I like the “cat” in the first stanza and the “cats” in the last one, brings it full circle. You might try changing the pov and “talking to” the jack-o-lantern.

  4. Daniel  •  Jul 13, 2010 @2:56 pm

    1. As conception goes, I like it. However, I generally had the feeling that the two voices are too similar to one another. You call the dentist lines ‘personal’ however in the first stanza, I got the feeling that the italicized voice was perhaps some piece of literature from a dentist’s office. That did not feel like the personal voice to me, but I love the feeling and idea of playing off that reality with your pumpkin imagery. I didn’t feel that quality any longer by the last stanza, however. And I felt like the pumpkin narrative was somewhat the more personal voice. I think to really pull off the dual voices they need to contrast as much as possible. Perhaps you need to look at ways of separating them, removing yourself more from the narrative, and restricting commentary to that personal voice. I would recommend not using the first person at all for the narrative of the pumpkin.

    2. I am not qualified to answer this either, but as for my own taste in subscribing to several journals, I can tell you that my response to question one would be one reason I might pass that page for another piece. Also, I feel that the end seems to present an answer to me and does not allow me enough room to participate as reader. You’ve taken me on this journey through the stages of the pumpkin’s life, but then given me an easy answer. I was craving to ask the questions myself. It may just be my own taste, but I much prefer pieces that just give me the scene and let me figure out the relationships myself.

    3. Yes, I think the imagery is interesting and rich, and I like the play of the dentistry taking me away and bringing me back to the next stage of the pumpkin every time. I think by taking us back & forth you are encouraging us to re-imagine the pumpkin in its new light as it ages in each stanza. I like that aspect of the piece. I love the orange pincushion line, especially followed by the expression ‘right respectable’- this gives me a feeling of home and tradition that adds to the effectiveness of the piece by juxtaposition of the dentist lines. I hope I’ve been of some help, good luck!

  5. Judith Toler  •  Jan 7, 2013 @5:01 pm

    Hello, C.E,

    I admire your willingness to experiment by using two voices. But I would eliminate the lines referring to the decay of of a tooth. As an experiment, rewrite your poem, eliminating dental references. I think you’ll find that you’ll have a more subtle poem (and therefore maybe more agreeable to an editor). Most importantly, the remaining words would be more universal, not confining death and decay just to a tooth but to a universal human experience. Let the gourd tell all!

  6. Sara  •  Jan 19, 2013 @10:43 am

    Hi there, C.E.

    This has a Dr. Seuss feel to it and it really woke up for me with the toothache. That is not to say the rotten old pumpkin is not well-realized. I think it is. I like the idea at the end, but the last 2 lines sound like you’ve given up too soon. Maybe flesh it out a bit more.

    As for editors, I don’t go there and give you no advice.

    Thanks for the poem.


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