Tag Archives: poet

Day of the Imprisoned Writer: a letter to Mahvash Sabet


Alberto Manguel is a well known and celebrated Argentine-born Canadian anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist and editor. Below is the letter he wrote to Mahvash Sabet, a Bahá’í and prisoner of conscious in Iran. During her incarceration, Mahvash has published a wonderful and inspiring book of poetry about her experiences in prison. (See below.) The letter was published in the British newspaper The Guardian  on Monday, November 10th in recognition of tomorrow, November 15th, the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. This is one of many open letters by leading authors written to defend persecuted writers.

I find his letter both touching and sincere and hope that it, in some degree, alleviates and comforts Mahvash Sabet and all her sister and brother Bahá’ís—and indeed all prisoners of conscious—in their unjust imprisonment.

Dear Mahvash Sabet,

It’s almost an impertinence, I feel, to write to a poet who is being kept behind bars for her words and beliefs. King Lear, imprisoned at the end of the play with his daughter Cordelia, tells her that they will become “God’s spies”. That is what you as well have become, bearing witness to society’s injustices, prejudices and inability to understand that no matter what society might do to a poet, the poet’s words will still be free in the minds of the readers, and continue to conjure up ideas, engage the mind in conversation. Perhaps there’s consolation in this.

You end one of your poems saying that “You can’t see the sorrow after lights out,” and that you therefore “long for the dark, total black-out.” I hope, for your dear sake, that the end of your sorrow is near but not as that “total black-out” you speak of: instead, as a resolution of freedom, as the free sunlight that is every person’s natural right, a right no one is entitled to take away.

I don’t know if you can find comfort in realising that you have now been welcomed into a vast and honoured company of imprisoned writers, from all centuries and all tongues, from Boethius to Abu Nuwas, Cervantes, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Nazim Hikmet and hundreds of others, and that generations of readers to come will remember your name as they remember theirs, long after the names of your jailers have been swept off the memory of the earth.

I can’t offer you anything in your cell except my devotion as your reader, my trust in better times, and my distant but sincere friendship. I hope that in the very near future we will meet in person, not only on the page.

With very best wishes of hope and courage,

Alberto Manguel


Mahvash Sabet, teacher and poet, is one of over 150 Bahá’ís currently serving long term prison sentences in Iran. She has been detained since 2008 for her faith and activities related to running the affairs of the Bahá’í religious minority in Iran. I have previously posted several of her poems, all taken from her book, Prison Poems:


available both in the US and UK.

A great thanks to Pete Hulme of Everybody Means Something for his post on this subject and for bringing this letter to my attention.

– john

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The first of forever

1) The Sacrifice

He, Abraham, the Father of all
stood first upon the Summit of Surrender.
There, with the knife of His heart raised,
the witness stones themselves cried out,
Father, forgive us!
We are nothing to You.
Every act from this Day hence
draws its breath from Yours!
Father, forgive us!

2) The Covenant

Then light was reborn in turmoil’s lament
as the Breath of God blew across His Servant’s brow.
His Will flashed down, His Voice thundered out
and His Patience billowed forth.
Thus did the storm of His Promise well up
to rage unabated, where it rages still,
deep in the hearts of His lovers.

3) The Lament of Ishmael

Father! cried Ishmael,
Why dost Thou stay Thy Hand?
Hast Thou no mercy for me?
Then, falling upon the dust
he, eldest of all thereafter
proved worthy to the task.
Embracing the ground at his Father’s feet
he calmed himself to account,
stretched forth his neck,
and awaited the blow that would never, he now knew, come.
Father forgive me! he wept, I am nothing!

The story of the Sacrifice has occupied Judaic/Christian/Muslim religious thinkers since the time of the Patriarchs themselves.

Before I go into why I wrote this three poem collective, I should explain a particular point: Jews and Christians believe that the child of the Sacrifice was Abraham’s second born son, Isaac. Muslims believe that the child in question was Abraham’s first born, Ishmael, who was twelve years older than his brother, and whose mother was Hagar. Isaac’s mother was Sarah, who bore Him when she was quite elderly and, so all believed, past her child bearing days. (In the Qur’án, Abraham is Ibrahim, Ishmael is Isma’il, and Ishaq is Isaac.) In religious history, all Jews believe that they are descended from Isaac, while all Arabic speaking peoples of the Arabian Peninsula—the first Muslims—believe they are descended from Ishmael.

Bahá’u’lláh—the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith—makes the point that the essential element of both versions remains the same: in the end, through the Will of God, an animal is sacrificed, not a son, and that the story is about the nature of the Sacrifice itself, not which child is named. To Jews (and Christians) it should be Isaac;  to Muslims (and Bahá’ís) it should be Isma’il/Ishmael. In either case, the essential Truth of the Word of God remains unchanged.

This story pops up everywhere. It is, for example, an essential plot element in the Hyperion series of science fiction books by Dan Simmons (highly recommended, by the way) and I recently listened to an NPR podcast from the RadioLab show that was specific to this story.

The point of the Sacrifice is to examine the nature of obedience to the Will of God and the meaning of sacrifice in His name. For centuries it has been the essential ethical and moral question pertaining to faith that many scholars and religious theorists have debated. The essential element is usually in the format of questions: “How can God ask this of Abraham?” and “How can Abraham accept that God…” or “How can Abraham even contemplate killing…” and “How can Ishmael not see that he…” My poem was written out of frustration with the interpretations I have studied on the story and to try and establish a different perspective on the nature of its meaning.

The universal failing, I believe, that people bring to the story is to bring it down to the level of their world experience and to cast the roles of the participants into their lives so that they can make the story relative to themselves. They do not try to cast themselves into the roles of the participants, or try to understand those roles, and so fail to grow into the understanding of what true faith is, as exemplified by the actions and the roles of the participants.

Let me explain this by using an example from the author, Rúhíyyih Khanum, when she writes about understanding the nature of great spiritual effort. She noted that when an airplane is on the ground it obeys all the laws of physics that pertain to objects rolling around on the earth. However, when, with a great surge of power, that airplane leaps into the air, it comes under the influence of a completely different set of physical laws, ones that cannot truly be experienced, but only imagined, by those who are earth-bound.

The same goes for great spiritual heroes; how can we, of lesser spiritual insight, understand the degree of sacrifice they are willing to make, and the degree of obedience they are willing to commit to? Because it is by these very acts that they enter a spiritual realm that we can only see and dimly be aware of. Their realm of action, while visible to ours, is not controlled by the same spiritual laws we follow.

And yet, paradoxically, there is, on their large scale, a truth that also works on our small scale: that sacrifice, willingly and lovingly given, is the spiritual energy that empowers every powerful act for good in this world. And if this is so for every human being and up to and including religious martyrs, then how much more so is it true for the Messengers of God Themselves?

We should not try and recast the story of the Sacrifice into something we can understand from our small world perspective. We must try and stretch our understanding and empathy towards the spiritual heights to which Abraham and Ishmael, in obedience to God, soar, and from our limited ability to view and understand such holy, detached and obedient certitude, strive to bring those same qualities into our lives.

First of all, Abraham is the Forefather of four world religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Bahá’í Faith. As a Messenger of God, His sense of conviction, faith, certitude and obedience is the very definition of what these words mean. He is not to be questioned, not to be pulled down, not to be examined by our standards, but is the One Who creates and sets the perfect value of those standards; as such He is to be obeyed, instantly, completely and exactly. Such is the difference between a normal human being and a Messenger of God—One who is a perfect mirror to God.

This sense of obedience and humility that even the rocks of this planet do a better job at then we humans do, is the heart of man’s role in the eternal Covenant of God, the essential relationship that binds man to God. This is the theme dealt with in The Sacrifice, the first poem of the trilogy.

The Lament of Ishmael is the essential point in the poetic trilogy. Most commentators raise the issue of how the Sacrifice deals with the sense of loss or betrayal that the story must have engendered in Ishmael. But this misses the point. Surely the history of religions has shown that spiritual heroes are ready to lay down their lives for their faith. And not just to do it, but to do it unhesitatingly, with joy, love, and even eagerness; this is the very essence of faith. I am certain that Ishmael would have been eager to shed his blood for his faith, and that not having the opportunity to do so would have been a great loss to him.

To show this point let me end with this: consider the story of Khálid ibn al-Walíd, the fearless, first great general of Islam, he who was designated by Muhammad as ‘The Drawn Sword of His Faith.’ On his death bed as an old man he lamented, “I’ve fought in so many battles seeking martyrdom that there is no spot on my body left without a scar or a wound made by a spear or sword. And yet here I am, dying on my bed like an old camel.”

What will each of us, I wonder, lament on our death beds?

Thank you for reading The first of forever. 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.


PS: A friend pointed out, after reading this poem, that in the Qur’an, it is said in Surih 37:102… And when he [Ishmael] reached with him [the age of] exertion, he [Abraham] said, “O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I [must] sacrifice you, so see what you think.” He said, “O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, of the steadfast.

© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. These poems 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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To see all the better

As you go, raise up, old friend,
your lamp higher. And if in so doing
the shadows cast darkest at your feet,
well is that not but the way of the world?
You said yourself that we are meant to stumble
the many noble paths as we walk them.
Now is just the time to laugh about it.

This poem was written for a dear friend, Carl Russo, just after his passing. I met Carl and his wife Jane when they came to our home some years before to repair our piano.

A Vietnam veteran, Carl had, like so many before him, suffered emotionally after his tour of duty; his post war years were marred by excessive drinking and drugs. He fought his way out of this morass with hard work and a deep probing questioning of God in general and Carl’s place in the spiritual world in particular. He was a great reader of Buddhism and we often discussed spiritual matters late into the night.

Just before Carl passed away (from pancreatic cancer, probably developed from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam) he was able to re-discover his Jewish faith and to be re-enrolled in his birth religion. It brought him a calmness and serenity as the time for his leaving this world came closer.

Whenever I think of Carl I see him as the Happy Buddha, content at the end, knowing the door was opening, not closing, and not at all regretful of going through it. I clearly remember him in our last meeting a few hours before he passed away; he smiled deeply and warmly and thanked me profusely for our friendship. The cares and woes were gone and a new adventure was beckoning. No wonder I felt his laughter as he went.

Thank you for reading To see all the better. 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.


© 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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Patrick (plus also Marian Burnett’s “After Seven Years”)

Patrick didn’t wait for me,
how like him to go on first, alone.
He was, to me, the essence of touch
made into flesh and bone—
his laughter, robust and yet so light,
had a way of bursting out
and rising up through the hole in your heart
and resting there, lingering long after
the echoes had departed.
I confess I can’t quite grasp it yet,
wherever did the time go?

It was as if the jingle-jangle
got to be too much for him
and now, here in free fall, I wonder
what it was I missed that he caught
and looking at thought, ‘no more’?
Sweetest man, you probably told me
but I wasn’t listening just then.
I am now.

Marian and Patrick Burnett were my best friends in university, all those many years ago. A young Bahá’í couple, they opened their home and hearts to an awkward, shy, newly minted Bahá’í youth just arrived into the big city. They were wonderful and I quickly came to think of Pat as the older brother/best friend/spiritual guide/mentor that every young man needs.

Pat was amazing. Smart, wise, strong, experienced, kind, generous and funny…gosh, so very, very funny, with a wonderful, subtle sense of insightful humor. And too, a wonderful taste in music. Much of the music I listen to today was guided by him; he had an incredible ear for good music and was the first to teach me to slip through musical genres to look for the magic of emotion in the layer below.

Let me share just one story about Pat. My mother loved him (she loved to cook and he loved to eat so they were a pair made in heaven) but, still he was outside of her sphere of experience. Then, one year, she became quite ill and spent quite a bit of time in a hospital where Pat, and often Marian, were rigorous about visiting her. She told me years later that there were times when the drugs would knock her out and Pat would be the last thing she saw as the light faded, sitting there reading a book, and he would be the first thing she saw as she came to some time later, “Still reading his book!” she would say, and picking up the conversation just where they left it off. After that, she loved Marian, and especially Pat, with a devotion that she held for few outside of the family (and not many even in that group.) He was thereafter her Pat and Marian, and that was that and God help the poor person that did not love them too!

Sadly—and I confess this was all my doing—after I graduated and moved away we drifted out of contact. (Of the many faults in my makeup, the fact that I have trouble sustaining long distance relationships is the one that betrays me the most.) The odd email or call is no replacement for being face-to-face and able to hug and to touch and to laugh.

The day that Pat’s son, Justin, was able to find me on Facebook and to tell me the sad news of his father’s death, was a hard one for me. As I was trying to take it in, I could hear my mother, long since passed, with one of her tropes, “Only the good die young!” And while that may not be true, what is true is that he was far too young to be gone from us. I still appreciate Justin’s kindness and tenacity in tracking me down, but I am not surprised that he did; he is very much, I think, like his father and his mother: kind, considerate and loving. I wish I was closer to them both to know him better.

Thank you for reading Patrick. 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.


January 20, 2013 Postscript:

Marian, Pat’s beloved wife and someone I am lucky and proud to call a dear, dear friend, recently shared this beautiful poem with me and then graciously allowed me to add it to the original post. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

After Seven Years

All there was before the shock
I have been clearing, sorting,
using the best
for my foundation.

He was the one
who introduced me
to the Maker of Blueprints
and encouraged me to build
My spire toward heaven

The poem Patrick, and the notes that accompany it are © 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poems 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.

The poem After Seven Years is © 2013 by Marian Burnett; all rights reserved; it may not be reproduced in any way without the written approval of the author.


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