Aug. 15, 2004

The Strain of Mercy

by Fred Chappell

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Poem: "The Strain of Mercy" by Fred Chappell from Family Gathering © Louisiana State University Press. Reprinted with permission.

The Strain of Mercy

Aunt Agnes takes it all in stride:
Uncle Einar's boorishness,
Cousin Lilia's need to hide,
Cousin Willoughby's sordid mess
He thinks is a "bohemian life,"
Aunt Alicia's wandering wits,
What Uncle Lewis did to his wife,
The way that Uncle Nahum sits
In his creepy corner and calculates,
Aunt Wilma's plans for sweet revenge,
Cousin Hubert in dire straits,
The inevitable and dreaded change
Coming to young Elizabeth,
Cousin Ellie's hordes of mates,
Uncle Ozzie's fear of death.

She recognizes what we are,
Yet holds us in affection
As steadfast as the morning star,
As if our faults had no connection
With the persons we are within.
She doesn't pretend an ignorance
Of our dark collective sin;
She only believes that circumstance
Has gone against us every one,
That by blind forces we were driven.

We make a painful silent moan
At being so horribly forgiven.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of contemporary poet Mary Jo Salter, born in Grand Rapids, Michigan (1954). She's the author of several collections of poetry, including Sunday Skaters (1994), A Kiss in Space (1999), and Open Shutters (2003).

It's the birthday of food writer Julia Child, born Julia McWilliams in Pasadena, California (1912). She was a tomboy growing up, and never cooked anything. She grew to be more than six feet tall, and when she went to college she wanted to be a basketball star. She eventually changed her mind and tried to write a novel, but that didn't work out either.

She became interested in gourmet food while working for the Office of Strategic Service during World War II She started taking cooking lessons, and she studied at Cordon Bleu, the famous school of French cooking. While in France, she joined an elite gastronomic society of women called "The Circle of Gourmets."

She wrote her first cookbook with two members of the society. In the first draft, she wrote eight hundred pages about poultry alone, but her publisher convinced her to cut back on the length. Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961. It was called the best book about French cooking ever written in English. She appeared on a talk show program to talk about her book, and demonstrated how to make one of the recipes. A TV producer saw her, thought she was a madwoman, and gave her her own cooking show.

It's the birthday of novelist Edna Ferber, born in Kalamazoo, Michigan (1885). She wrote many bestselling novels in her lifetime, but is best known for her novel Show Boat (1926), about a family that runs a theater on a boat. The novel was the basis for the musical with songs by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern.

It's the birthday of essayist Thomas De Quincey, born in Manchester, England (1785). He's best known as the author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822), the first drug addiction memoir, which greatly influenced later generations of bohemian writers, from Charles Baudelaire to William S. Burroughs.

De Quincey began using opium at a time when it was a perfectly legal, common painkiller, sold in liquid form as laudanum. He was a nineteen-year-old college student when he had his first experience with the drug. It was a rainy Sunday afternoon, and he'd been suffering from a toothache.

De Quincy soon dropped out of college and started reading Romantic poetry. He bummed around, hung out with intellectuals, and impressed everyone he met with his brilliant conversation. He became friends with Coleridge and Wordsworth, who encouraged him to write, but he was a terrible procrastinator and never got anything done, especially since he was taking opium every day. Finally, instead of quitting opium in order to write, he decided to write about taking opium, and his anonymous memoir became a huge best seller.

It's the birthday of Sir Walter Scott, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1771). His novels, such as Rob Roy (1818) and Ivanhoe (1819) were among the first novels taken seriously by scholars and critics. He started out as a poet in 1796. He didn't handle money well, though, and to pay off his debts, he decided to publish a novel, which back then was like deciding to write for a soap opera. To protect his reputation, he published the novel Waverley (1814) anonymously, and it became a huge bestseller.

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