Aug. 24, 2007


by Terence Winch

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Poem:"Forgiveness" by Terence Winch, from Boy Drinkers. © Hanging Loose Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Father Cahir kept us holy.
He smoked cigars in the confessional.
He had a distracted air about him,
as though he wasn't sure what
he was supposed to do next.

I don't remember what he taught.
History, probably. It was his
liberal attitude as a confessor
that made him a legend.

No matter what you confessed to,
he always barked out the same penance:
"Three Hail Marys and a Good Act
of Contrition. Next!" So we tested
this leniency, confessing
to rape, murder, burglary.

Cahir paid no attention.
He knew we were a bunch
of high school punks.
Puffing his cigar,
he'd issue his standard
penance and absolve all sins,
real or imagined,
with godlike aloofness,
his vast indifference to
or total acceptance of the darkness
within the human soul
exactly how I hope the deity
regards us. Take forgiveness
any way you can get it.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of short story writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges (books by this author), born in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1899). After studying in Europe, he moved back to Argentina and got a job at a small municipal library, and eventually he worked his way up to director of the National Library of Buenos Aires. He was able to complete his library work in one hour every morning, and he spent the rest of the day wandering the stacks, reading, or writing.

Surrounded by books in that library, Borges began to write strange stories, often about imaginary books. He said, "It is a laborious madness ... the madness of composing vast books — setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them." One of his stories, "The Library of Babel," is about a man who works in a library that contains all the books that have ever been written, as well as all the books that could ever be written, as well as an infinite number of books filled with gibberish, and nobody knows which books are worth reading.

Borges published many collections of stories, including Garden of Forking Paths (1941), Ficciones (1944), and In Praise of Darkness (1969).

It was on this day in 79 A.D. that the one of the most destructive volcano eruptions in recorded human history occurred when the volcano Mt. Vesuvius erupted, burying the Roman city of Pompeii. Pompeii was a resort town for citizens of Rome at the time, located on the Bay of Naples. People there probably didn't even know Mt. Vesuvius was a volcano. There hadn't been a major eruption in 800 years. But there were frequent earthquakes, and in the two weeks leading up to the eruption, there had been thin clouds of volcanic ash drifting down from the mountain, which people had been sweeping off the streets.

Then, on the morning of this day in 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius exploded with a force 100,000 times that of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The explosion sent a cloud of ash 12 miles into the air, completely blacking out the sun. The mountain was almost five miles away, so some of the people in the city didn't evacuate right away. They thought they would have time to flee if necessary. What they didn't know was that the volcano had spewed toxic gasses along with molten rock. Birds began to fall dead from the sky, and then the city was blanketed with volcanic rock and ash, at the rate of six inches an hour. By the end of the day, not a single living thing remained in Pompeii. The city was buried under more than 20 feet of debris.

The molten rock that covered the city kept it preserved for more than 1,750 years, until the mid-1800s, when stories began to circulate in the area that you could dig around in the dirt and find treasures. After years of pillaging, an archeologist was finally hired in 1860 to perform an official excavation of Pompeii. It turned out to be one of the most important sites in the history of archeology.

Most of the city was preserved exactly as it had been at the moment of destruction. Archeologists could examine what pictures ordinary people had painted on their walls, what cutlery and cookware they kept in their kitchens. They found graffiti written on bathroom walls and legal documents written on wax tablets. Most of what historians know about everyday life in Ancient Rome is based on what archeologists found in the perfectly preserved city of Pompeii.

And archaeologists also found the bodies of the people who died in the eruption. The volcanic ash had molded to the bodies of the victims, leaving a perfect imprint before the bodies decayed. Archaeologists poured plaster into these molds, and the result was detailed replicas of the victims at the moment of death, down to the wrinkles in their clothing and the expressions on their faces. On the floor in a house they found a father and son. The young boy was on his back, looking up at his father, and they were holding hands. They found adults with their arms outstretched trying to protect children, a family of eight rushing toward the sea, and dogs straining against their leashes.

It's the birthday of poet Robert Herrick (books by this author), born in London (1591), the author of the lines, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying, / And this same flower that smiles to-day / To-morrow will be dying."

It's the birthday of novelist A. S. Byatt (books by this author), born Antonia Susan Drabble in Sheffield, England (1936). She wrote the novel Possession (1990), about a pair of literary critics falling in love as they uncover the story of two Victorian poets who fell in love more than a hundred years in the past.

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