Tag Archives: mercy

A service I am now glad to repay

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Patrick died, years ago, in an alcoholic haze of shame, resentment and relief,
wondering, I suspect, where along the path it had all gone wrong,
yet knowing he had no answer. Long ago, he had befriended me,
and when I needed it—but did not expect it—he had been kind to me.
He was my friend.

Do I know as little as he then—me, now, with all my memories?
And will I, like him, question myself down to the grave’s edge?
Yes, probably—we all have our Irish to carry, we poor debtors, we do.
So goodnight, friend Patrick, I am here for you, let it go and sleep well.
You’ve earned it.

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Many years ago, when I had just returned to Newfoundland from Africa, newly married and near broke, Patrick Kennedy hired me to a job that I loved and which set the course of my career. He was a jovial, friendly fellow (among other things, I recall we shared a love for Bruce Springsteen) who was always willing to talk, always willing to help, always quick with a laugh and a quip. To hear recently, after all these years, how bitter and tragic was his end saddened me very much.

John Waters is a well-known Irish journalist who got sober in 1989. He, better than anyone else, has captured the heart of what it is to be Irish:

“Drinking [to the Irish] is not simply a convivial pastime, it is a ritualistic alternative to real life, a spiritual placebo, a fumble for eternity, a longing for heaven, a thirst for return to the embrace of the Almighty.”

I grew up with alcoholics all around me and swore off drink when, at seventeen, I became a Bahá’í. For this and many things else, I have thanked God ever since. I know too well the devastation addiction brings.

Thank you for reading A service I am now glad to repay. I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain, and as always, I look forward to your comments.

The photograph was taken in my home in Connecticut. To see my photography blog, please visit the Book of Bokeh.

john

Photograph, poem and notes © John Etheridge; all rights reserved. The poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original written work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © John Etheridge,  https://bookofpain.wordpress.com. The photograph is not licensed for use in any way without the expressed consent of its creator.

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Pete Hulme’s “Dust for winds to scatter”

Pete Hulme writes the Everybody Means Something blog, a treasure trove of deeply reasoned, well-written and thought provoking essays, reviews, ideas and poems on a wide variety of topics. Here is a poem, Dust for winds to scatter that he released recently:

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You will note that Pete’s poem is after the great Spanish poet, Antonio Machado‘s poem:

¿Y ha de morir contigo el mundo mago
donde guarda el recuerdo
los hálitos más puros de la vida,
la blanca sombra del amor primero,

la voz que fue a tu corazón, la mano
que tú querías retener en sueños,
y todos los amores
que llegaron al alma, al hondo cielo?

¿Y ha de morir contigo el mundo tuyo,
la vieja vida en orden tuyo y nuevo?

¿Los yunques y crisoles de tu alma
trabajan para el polvo y para el viento?

Since I do not speak Spanish and could not find a better translation, I was forced to work with Google’s site translator:

And is it to die with the wizard world
where the memory keeps
the breaths purest life,
the white shadow of love first,

the voice that was your heart, the hand
you wanted to retain in dreams,
and loves all
who came to the soul, to the deep sky?

And you must die to your world,
is life in the old and new order yours?

Do anvils forge your soul
working for the dust and the wind?

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Besides the unifying theme of struggle leading, in the end, to the wind blown dust, the reference in Pete’s poem to the idea and style of Machado’s work is clear—both are filled with a full measure of heart-filled anguish by one who has loved truly and deeply. Moreover, both poems ache so perfectly that it is not possible to read either (even in the Google translation) and not ache with them, for both talk of the essence of what it is to love and to love in life with an intensity that catches the breath and fixes the imagination.

However, to consider Pete’s poem a slavish imitation to the original would be very wrong, as he adds, I think, two essential elements that are his own: that the love he has born, being human, has not been born perfectly; but that, still, beyond this, this love he has borne has transformed him sufficiently to glimpse the mercy of the Divine. These added elements are more than beautiful and worthy sentiments, they are at once sublime in their cohesiveness, approachable by the least among us and transformative for those who can mine the core of humility buried in the depths of the poem. For me, it is a poem that only improves over time and grows sweeter to the tongue with each re-read.

What is more, I suspect that Antonio Machado feels that way too.

Thank you for reading Pete Hulme’s “Dust for winds to scatter”. 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

Comments © 2014 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. Poem © 2014 by Pete Hulme; all rights reserved. Oddly enough—for me, anyway—it is used by permission of the author.

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Hope Marse Robert’ll speak up for me

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Was near there at the end, I recall, we was hungry,
hadn’t et for days, but’d marched light and dark,
never sleeping more’n minutes, scootin’ it for
the Carolinas so’s we could keep up the fight
in the wrinkles of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Good God it rained, but it rained! Every river
was swollen and most flooded. We was cold
and no one had boots left, socks even, just
bloodied soles. At the last, them Yankees
came at us like dogs who’d worried their hunt
to a hole and it was close and hot there for a while.
I recall puttin’ my piece to the back o’ the head
of one of them blue coats and pullin’ the trigger.
After all them years I can tell you my charges
never failed, no matter how wet or cold it got.
As he fell I realized t’was my best friend, the one
what had convinced me to sign up with him.
‘Spite what the officers had told us, he had took
the coat off’n a dead Yankee days ago rather than
worryin’ t’freeze t’death. I left that blue coat
on him as I tucked him in and pulled the dirt blanket
o’er his head, so’s he could sleep warm that night.
Now, looking back, I wonder, when I go too, will I
be sleepin’ warm? I don’t doubt I ought, I don’t.

 

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This is the final of two poems dealing with the American Civil War that were inspired by reading Killing Lincoln. I recommend that any non-Americans who aren’t quite as familiar with this war, read the explanation accompanying that first post, Sailor’s Creek, as a quick background to understand the key roles of that conflict.

Even after reading that first post, here are a few further notes:

1) Marse (short for ‘Master’) Robert was a term of deep affection Lee’s troops used to refer to him.

2) Lee’s plan after quitting Petersburg and the fall of the Confederate capital of Richmond was to escape to the Carolinas, where support for the Confederacy was high, there to fight a guerrilla war from the easily defended Blue Ridge Mountains. His retreat, however, was betrayed by Confederate looters who stole the army’s rations. The route was also eventually cut off by Grant, forcing Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

3) While, in fact, both sides wore a variety of colors in their uniforms, generally the Confederate South (the ‘Rebels’) wore gray and the Union North (the ‘Yankees’) wore blue. Certainly, the grays and the blue coats became standard terms used by both sides to refer to themselves and each other.

4) This story is real in so far as it is historically correct and it is recorded that on at least one occasion a Confederate soldier in the last few days of battle killed his best friend because that friend, like many others and against orders,  was wearing a coat stolen from a dead Northern soldier. The rest of the story, and especially the fear of the fires of hell, is my invention.

5) To be honest, I have no idea if I have authentically caught the patois of the Virginian accent, or just done a poor job of imitating a Hollywood version of that accent. But from the start it was clear to me that the poem had to be told in the first person and modern rules of diction just wouldn’t do. The point is that the soldier was a rustic from a rustic time, dealing with a terrible conditions and burdened by a horrendous act of guilt. That, I hope, still emerges. The word ‘et’ in the second line means ‘eaten.’

6) The ‘piece’ referred to by the speaker would have been his front-loaded musket rifle. Repeating Spencer rifles with modern bullets were introduced at the very end of the war, but only in the North and in very limited supply. By far the most common weapon for both sides was a long-barreled musket, where the gunpowder charge was loaded from the front, then a lead bullet and the whole tamped into place by a rod; an explosive cap was then placed under the hammer. Keeping your powder cartridges and caps dry and being able to perform quick re-loads, even in damp conditions, was the sign of a professional soldier. By this stage of the war, both sides were very, very good at doing this because if a soldier wasn’t, he was long dead.

Thank you for reading Hope Marse Robert’ll speak up for me. I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain, and as always, I look forward to your comments.

The photograph was taken at a Civil War re-enactment at Williamsburg, Virginia. The actors were a Southern troop of artilleryman and my standing so close to get that shot meant several hours of ringing ears from the one round they let off. What a real battlefield was like I can hardly, and do not really want to, imagine. For more photography, please visit the Book of Bokeh.

john

Photograph, poem and notes © 2014 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. The poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original written work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2014 by John Etheridge,  https://bookofpain.wordpress.com. The photograph is not licensed for use or reproduction in any way, unless so granted in writing by the copyright owner.

 

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Sailor’s Creek

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It was the last action of the Army of Northern Virginia,
the final skirmish that bent its knee. A smaller fight
than many, still, it was the most crowded, vicious,
no-quarter-given or asked, bloody, desperate and savage
action of the war. Muskets were useless, except as clubs;
bayonets, knives, rocks, nails—teeth if you had any left—
all were screamed into the melee, hand-to-hand, eye-to-eye,
rage-to-rage. The Rebs were tired, starved, ragged phantoms
of sinew, hunger and misery; the Yankees were toughened
campaigners and ready for their end game; they even jeered
‘surrender’ on their first charge, but after dying to a man,
not the second. And so both sides flowed into being
what their hearts had pent up for so long: a red-hot lava
of pure hate, purer desperation and purest hope, so that
the green-green grass was green no more with the slick of it.

And then it was done. The Union soldiers, on seeing the state
of their Confederate prisoners, opened their packs to share
what food they had. Days later, Lee wore his ceremonial sword
to Appomattox, but Grant refused to ask for it, instead offering
terms gentler than had been sought. With permission,
the two officer corps then sought out the friends left living
on the other side. And that night, Lincoln, too tired to give
a speech, asked the band, instead, to play Dixie.
The crowd sang along ’til the end.

 

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The American Civil War (1861-1865) was the bloodiest and most savage conflict the United States has ever engaged in. Although Southern revisionists argued after the war (and since) that the real issue at the heart of the conflict was ‘states rights,’ truthfully it was about slavery and its need to be purged from the land.

The events described in this poem are authentic and exact and were taken from the book Killing Lincoln, which I read recently. This is the first of two poems inspired by the end of the Civil War, the second is I hope Marse Robert’ll speak up for me.

For the non-Americans reading this post, a few notes:

1) The two sides of the conflict were: in the North, the Union forces, popularly referred to as Yankees, fighting to preserve the country in its entirety and end slavery; and in the South, the Confederate forces, popularly referred to as the Rebels, or Rebs, who were fighting for secession (the right to leave) from the United States of America to form a separate country, the Confederated States of America (also known as ‘the Confederacy’) which would be built on an economy of slavery.

2) President Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest President the country has ever known,  pursued the war with great vigor, but clearly wanted a policy of forgiveness and reconstruction for the South after the conflict was over, to bring it firmly back into the Union. Tragically, this great man was assassinated just after the war and his policies not clearly followed. Jefferson Davis was  his Confederate counterpart. By the time of the events of this poem, the Confederate capitol of Richmond had fallen (on April 3rd, not May 10th, as accounted in the popular song by The Band, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down) and Davis was on the run, soon to be captured on May 10th. (Hence the confusion.) Although held for two years, neither he, nor any of his government, were ever tried for treason.

3) General Ulysses S. Grant was the head of the Union forces and a brilliant campaigner, while General Robert E. Lee, although the titular leader of the Confederate forces, was actually only directly in control of the Army of Northern Virginia. This was the army Lee had lead—his campaigns are still studied by military strategists today—in all his battles throughout the war; they were tough, committed and brave veterans who adored and trusted Lee and would follow him everywhere and anywhere. However, by the end of the conflict, their numbers were greatly reduced through battle, disease, starvation, exhaustion and (once the point seemed useless) desertion. In the last week alone the army’s numbers dwindled from 30,000 to less than 8,000 men.

4) Appomattox (pronounced apho-MAT-ix) was the spot where Lee, finally cut off and surrounded, surrendered to Grant. Grant refused to ask for Lee’s sword, although Lee had worn a large ceremonial one for just that purpose. The terms given by Grant originated with Lincoln and were simple: that every soldier would be cared for and then be free to return home if they did so peacefully; and that no officers, including the generals, would be tried for treason. While Lee’s surrender left over 140,000 Confederate forces still in the field, these held out only for a short time. That surrender at Appomattox, owing to Lee’s popularity and charismatic leadership, was the end of the war.

5) Dixie was a popular minstrel song in the 1850’s throughout the United States. Although not official, it was the de facto anthem of the Confederacy and remains identified with it to this day.

The main consequences of the war were the preservation of the United States, the abolition of slavery (although by no means was this the end of the black struggle for equality) and the creation of an American consciousness: prior to the war, individuals identified with the state they were from; after the war, people, both North and South, saw themselves as Americans. The country had paid for that right in blood.

Thank you for reading Sailor’s Creek. I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain, and as always, I look forward to your comments.

The photograph was taken at dawn in a Civil War era cemetery just outside of Pomfret, CT. For more photography, please visit the Book of Bokeh.

john

Photograph, poem and notes © 2014 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. The poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original written work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2014 by John Etheridge,  https://bookofpain.wordpress.com. The photograph is not licensed for use or reproduction in any way, unless so granted in writing by the copyright owner.

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The gardener’s heart

Roses are willful, cantankerous things
with sharp tongues, no patience
and—I assure you—far too high
an opinion of themselves.
They are recalcitrant, mean-spirited,
hold a grudge for eternity and require constant attention—
which they do their best to ignore.

Bloody roses.

You could take them all, except
(and that’s the issue, that ‘except’)
there are times in the evening
when tamed, shaped, pruned and tied,
they, in their silent serenade to the setting sun
waft onto the night the heavy musk of their ardor
to beg the solace of a shameless, sweet slumber.
And that is when I close my eyes, surrender to the night
and pray that at the end, I too am a rose.

I am not a gardener by drive or inspiration, I am too lazy for that. But I married one and out of love for her I do my best to hold up at least some part of the gardening burden. Because as reluctant as I am to work in them during the day, I equally adore their beauty in the evening. I do a lot of thinking in gardens…

Thank you for reading The gardener’s heart. 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 and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2013 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.

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On this bridge, as far as I can see

Out of control, whirligig,
one round, two rounds, three rounds stop—
the road a blur of nothing having happened at all.
Except (in a right world)
I’d be dead in the river below
instead of up here on the bridge
needing a smoke so bad
I thought I’d eat the pack.

But isn’t that the truth of it?
Because that’s when they find you the hardest,
those pesky, insolent things
those principles of your certainty.
Eventually they catch up with you and stumble you
like dozens of tiny hooks
bowing humbly at your feet,
each pointing their little barbs straight up:
icy roads and too much speed,
truth and honor and lies—
and you ask yourself as you sit there,
why did I ever think
I could get away with that?

In 1981 I was working as the site engineer at the construction of a gas transmission plant that I had designed in northern Alberta, Canada. Being December in northern Alberta, and especially then in the 80s, that meant that the world was made up of cold, ice and snow, and after that more cold, ice and snow.

That day was the last working day for the Christmas Holiday; we wouldn’t be back to the site until after the New Year. I was the last to leave and start down the rural, dirt road that had been cut into the forest to where the plant was located. I was en route to my apartment in Calgary in southern Alberta, but foolishly, while my friends in northern Alberta knew I was going south for the holidays, my friends in the south did not know when to expect me, if at all; I hadn’t really shared my plans with them.

Being excited at the thought of the vacation, I did not take into account what I was doing until I crested an icy hill. I am going way too fast, I thought, and I was. Going down the other side I had to tap my truck’s brakes to have any hope of making it around a bend at the bottom of the hill heading to a bridge that was over  a 20 foot drop to a rocky, fast and icy cold river below. When I did I instantly lost control. I can’t remember if or how I fought for control of the vehicle, but I do remember ending up swinging around in lazy circles in the exact same spot in the middle of a bridge—three times—and stopping looking exactly in the direction I should be going. How I wasn’t in the river below I still don’t know. After a few minutes, and yes, a cigarette or two (I’ve since quit) I put the truck in gear and drove on, slowly, shaken and thinking of what could have just happened, but didn’t.

To quote a favorite prayer: I beseech Thee to aid and assist me at all times and under all conditions, and seek from the heaven of Thy grace Thine ancient favor.

Thank you for reading On this bridge, as far as I can see. 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

© 2012 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2012 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.

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One by one by one

Liar, beggar-man, thief—that’s me,
a fugitive from sins long ago.
And while faith was a wish and a promise too
it was never for those who came to it light of heart,
hence weeping, down and out, for the once
no more humble for all my faults
than I should have been, but still,
there you are, I can’t deny it, begging all the same.
Honestly, it would all be too cruel
if not for the grace that flows to every kind of thief
who takes back less than he gives.
But the most that flows is, I pray, to those
who steal tales of tears and aches and love
to make them their own, only then
letting them fall and fall and fall,
dropping them, I fear, for forever.

I was driving back from a Bahá’í conference with my wife, Lyn, when, on the mention of something, and along a line of tortuous reasoning I can no longer remember, one thing lead to another and my mind somehow got onto the subject of the book Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarre. From this, the words “Liar, beggar-man, thief” jumped in and this poem was started

Aren’t we all, in reality, but beggars at God’s door? Nothing we can do can make us deserving of the love and mercy that God rains upon us all continuously; in fact, this is the very definition of the word “grace,” the undeserved mercy of God.

Thank you for reading One by one by one. 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

© 2012 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2012 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.

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