Monthly Archives: March 2013

The flow

A small girl, her cotton nightdress
flapping behind her like wings
alights atop the banister…
Not me—you, her poise seems to say,
and with the balance in her flow
proceeds from whence she came,
down and away—
and away and away and away—
into the night, free.

I am a member of the PenDragons, a  poetry circle where we sometimes share poems in development to get a second opinion prior to publication. This particular poem is the first of two (the other will be the next posting I make) developed as a challenge to the circle and based on this first draft of an idea:

The flow is the balance,
through windswept corridors
and over rocky shores
where back currents whisper
quietly in your ear,
“not me–you,” it kisses
softly and recedes from whence
it came.

This rough, yet evocative, image-poor idea sort of took off from there and split into two more concrete poems fairly quickly. I have been tussling with them since the first few go-a-rounds trying to firm them up and, for better or worse, they are now complete.

Thank you so much for reading The flow. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments. Please, too, visit my fellow PenDargons’ sites: Julia Dean-Richards of A Place For Poetry (http://aplaceforpoetry.wordpress.com), Elizabeth Cook of Serial Outlet (http://serialoutlet.wordpress.com) and Jordan Joseph Roe of Tierce & Hum (http://tierceandhum.wordpress.com). All are excellent poets and they host excellent sites! I am honored to be in their circle.

john

© 2013 by John Etheridge, Julia Dean-Richards, Elizabeth Cook and Jordan Joseph Roe; all rights reserved. The poems in this posting, and the notes that accompany it, may not be printed or distributed without the written permission of the authors.

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Every truth

How much movement is there
in the stillness of a heron?
How much movement in the water below?
Heron and fish—stillness and movement,
how these lovers lead the other
in their perfect little dance
of need and surrender.

Listen, this is true:
I have sat praying,
knowing that anything I desired
could be mine,
if only I would deign not to wish it;
every truth is a paradox,
but no truth is a lie.

I drive an hour each day to and from work, with much of the journey being through rural Connecticut. There is one small lake that I pass that, for an entire season, an egret was using for its nesting and feeding. Every day I would look to catch a glimpse of it fishing and often reflected on its sense of patience and purpose. And while that scene and my meditations are the obvious source for the first part of the poem, the source for the second part is more difficult to explain.

Prayer is transformative, a creative act by and for the person saying the prayer. It is not that it is wrong to say a prayer asking for a specific outcome; it is wrong to say a prayer that is contingent on a specific outcome. God tests mankind, not the other way around. The more of the sense of control over our lives that we give up, the more we are actually in control of what matters in our lives.

And while that is a paradox, it is, I think, no lie.

Thank you so much for reading Every truth. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

john

© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem, either alone or with the notes that accompany it, may be printed and distributed—in part or amalgamated with other works—as long as the copyright notice and the address, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com, are also clearly printed with it and there is no fee charged.

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In exile

I wish to God I knew where I was.
Not the Black Place—although my desires often blind me;
not the Ancient Place—even though I age faster every day;
not the Fearless Place—where courage cannot take me;
nor even the Remote Place—despite anger chaining me afar.

And certainly it is not the Most Great Place,
whereby I do not mean the cell that was cleaned,
painted and aired…
I’ve been there and only felt Your presence dimly.
No, I mean the Other Spot,
the Prison where Your companions go,
still, even to this day,
but outside which I sit, yearning,
hoping to find the way.

Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was, for the forty plus years of His Ministry, and until His passing, a prisoner and an exile, first at the mercy of the Iranian government, and then under the ever more fearful eye of the waning Ottoman Empire. The story of His successive banishments under these twin ruling powers is the historical backdrop of this poem.

It commences in 1852, with Bahá’u’lláh’s imprisonment in the Síyáh-Chál, literally the Black Pit (the Black Place of the poem) a loathsome and disgusting jail converted from an abandoned water reservoir. Released in 1853, He, despite being sick and in poor health, was exiled with His Family from Iran to Baghdad (the Ancient Place of the poem) and then called on to Constantinople in 1863. In the poem, Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire—and now Istanbul—is referred to as the Fearless Place because it was here that Bahá’u’lláh resolutely refused to curry favor and beg for sympathy with the government officials of the Empire, as was expected of all prisoners. Instead He stated that He had put His faith in God and trusted in Him, further stating that nothing any man could do could curtail or thwart the Will of God.

As a result of this stance, Bahá’u’lláh and His family were further exiled to Adrianople and arrived there in the waning days of 1863. Adrianople—now Edirne—is one of the remotest parts of Turkey in what is actually Europe, and is referred to in the poem as the Remote Place, the furthest point from His home of Tehran that Bahá’u’lláh would travel.

But the most difficult place of His exile was set in 1868 when He and His entourage were forced to relocate to ‘Akká, in what is now Israel, a penal colony and known at the time for its pestilential airs and filthy conditions. Upon arrival there Bahá’u’lláh designated the prison where they were incarcerated as the Most Great Prison (the Most Great Place of the poem); it was in this city, and despite the loathsome conditions under which they lived, that His Mission reached its zenith. Bahá’u’lláh officially remained a prisoner until His death in 1892. However, after years of His living among the local populace, such was the admiration that was esteemed to Him that He was, by then, able to rent a home in the countryside and be surrounded by the gardens and verdure He loved most.

The last place mentioned in the poem, the “Other Place” is harder to describe. In one of His prayers revealed specifically for the Fast, Bahá’u’lláh first talks of ‘Thine ardent lovers…they who have been so inebriated with the wine of Thy manifold wisdom that they forsake their couches in their longing to celebrate Thy praise and extol Thy virtues, and flee from sleep in their eagerness to approach Thy presence and partake of Thy bounty.’ Later He goes on to say, ‘These are Thy servants, O my Lord, who have entered with Thee in this, the Most Great Prison, who have kept the fast…’

On the face of it, this prayer was written when Bahá’u’lláh was, with His companions, incarcerated in the prison in ‘Akká and He is extolling their fortitude and grace. But there is much more, I think, to this prayer then this single face.

The prayers of Bahá’u’lláh were written for all peoples of all times, and so as I was reading this prayer, I felt that there must be a dimension of the words that went beyond referencing a purely physical spot at a specific point in time. In the end, I came to believe that it is possibly for anyone today, who approaches the Fast with a sufficient degree of humility and submission, to meet with Bahá’u’lláh in a spiritual ‘Most Great Prison’, a place where one is held captive not by chains, but by love, to become, in effect, out of devotion to Him, a thrall to His Will. The irony of this is deliciously sweet to a poet: to find the true freedom of love is to yield the bondage of will.

Or so I think; for while I can believe in such an “Other Place” I have never been there except for a few fleeting minutes. But, if you will, please forgive an old poet his chance to dream…

Thank you so much for reading in exile. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

john

© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem, either alone or with the notes that accompany it, may be printed and distributed—in part or amalgamated with other works—as long as the copyright notice and the address, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com, are also clearly printed with it and there is no fee charged.

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breath

as sun sets
moon bares witness the hour;
chill earth grins.

I love well written haiku; thus I am often frustrated with the frivolous and imprecise way they are developed in English. The web sites available on the Internet with pages of haiku-like poems written as odes to the luncheon meat Spam attest to that. People tend to think that all they have to do is write verse in 5-7-5 syllables and they have a haiku. Not so. This poem was my first attempt at a serious haiku.

First of all, breath has a kigo, a defined word or phrase that symbolizes or implies the season of the poem. It also has a kireji, or cutting word—in this case ‘hour;’. It separates the stream of thought in the poem and builds a parallel between its two halves.

breath does not conform to the 5-7-5 syllable convention for a reason: this is not exactly the pattern which truly defines a haiku, because it does not allow for the brevity of thought that is the essence of the original style.

First of all, there is the fact that English is a terser language than Japanese. The English word ‘milk’, for example, has one syllable; in Japanese it has three syllables.

Moreover, in Japanese, a haiku calls for a structure of 5-7-5 on. An on is similar to a syllable but they are not the same thing. Long vowels and double consonants each count as double on and the letter ‘n’ at the end of a word counts as one on also. In fact the word ‘on‘ itself (pronounced ‘oh’ and then with a drawn out nasally ‘n’) counts as two on. Or consider this example: in English the word ‘delay’ counts as two syllables; in Japanese this would be three on because of the long ‘a’ sound.

By some standards, the recommend length of an English poem, to achieve the equivalent effect of Japanese—and thereby overcome the natural terseness of English and the effect of counting on—is twelve English syllables; usually, but not necessarily, in a 3-6-3 pattern. And while I am not so rigid as to suggest this has to be a ‘rule’, I do believe that limiting the syllables by some amount for an English haiku does give it more gravitas.

But if terseness is one of the issues that make English haiku differ from Japanese haiku, content is the main one. In Japan, haiku are deep, emotionally vibrant poems. Consider, for example the haiku old pond written by Japan’s greatest haiku poet, the 18th century poet Bashō, and perhaps the most well known Japanese haiku of all time. A word by word translation is:

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water’s sound

An alternate translation, supplied by Wikipedia, which preserves the syllable count in English at the cost of taking greater liberty with the sense is:

at the age old pond
a frog leaps into water
a deep resonance

In Japan, haiku are not throw away jokes. They are serious poems dealing with serious issues and while I am opening myself to criticism as being a purist, I think that is what they should remain, independent of what language they are written in.

Thank you very much for reading breath. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

john

© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem, either alone or with the notes that accompany it, may be printed and distributed—in part or amalgamated with other works—as long as the copyright notice and the address, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com, are also clearly printed with it and there is no fee charged.

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