May 22, 2002

Since You Asked

by Lawrence Raab

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Poem: "Since You Asked," by Lawrence Raab from What We Don't Know About Each Other (Penguin).

Since You Asked

for a friend who asked
to be in a poem

Since you asked, let's make it dinner
at your house-a celebration
for no reason, which is always
the best occasion. Are you worried
there won't be enough space, enough food?

But in a poem we can do anything we want.
Look how easy it is to add on rooms, to multiply
the wine and chickens. And while we're at it
let's take those trees that died last winter
and bring them back to life.

Things should look pulled together,
and we could use the shade-so even now
they shudder and unfold their bright new leaves.
And now the guests are arriving-everyone
you expected, then others as well:

friends who never became your friends,
the women you didn't marry, all their children.
And the dead-I didn't tell you
but they're always included in these gatherings-
hesitant and shy, they hang back at first

among the blossoming trees.
You have only to say their names,
ask them inside. Everyone will find a place
at your table. What more can I do?
The glasses are filled, the children are quiet.

My friend, it must be time for you to speak.

It's the birthday of literary critic and historian Garry Wills, born in Atlanta, Georgia (1934). He has written hundred of articles and book reviews for such publications as Esquire, the New York Review of Books, and The New York Times Magazine, and is seen often as a political expert on television news programs. One of his most controversial books was Nixon Agonistes (1970). John Leonard, reviewing the book for The New York Times, applauded Wills for achieving the "not inconsiderable feat of making Richard Nixon a sympathetic - even tragic - figure, while at the same time being appalled by him." Some of his other controversial works include The Kennedy Imprisonment (1982), which tears apart what Wills sees as the myths of the Kennedy era; and Papal Sin (2000), a "behind the scenes" critical study of the papacy through the centuries.

It's the birthday of children's author and illustrator Arnold Lobel, born in Los Angeles, California (1933). His family outings to see the animals inspired his first book, A Zoo for Mister Muster (1962). Most of his books feature animals as the main characters; two of his most famous creations are Frog and Toad, a pair of amphibians who go through many silly adventures, but always remain friends in the end.

It's the birthday of novelist and nonfiction writer Peter Matthiessen, born in New York City, New York (1927). In 1956, he decided to visit every wildlife refuge in the United States. It took him three years, and he wrote about his experiences in Wildlife in America (1959). Matthiessen bolstered his reputation as a novelist with At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965; filmed 1992), the story of the misguided efforts of several missionaries to "save" a South American Indian tribe. In 1978, he wrote Snow Leopard, a nonfiction account of his journey through Nepal on the trail of the endangered snow leopard.

It's the birthday of journalist and social critic Vance (Oakley) Packard, born in Granville Summit, Pennsylvania (1914). In many respects, Packard now seems ahead of his time, as many of the social issues he wrote about have remained concerns into the twenty-first century. Packard wrote several books of social criticism, including The Naked Society (1964), about the techniques government and corporations use to gather information about individuals; and The People Shapers, exploring the way science was beginning to manipulate and modify mood, personality, intelligence, and methods of reproduction and longevity.

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Arthur Conan Doyle, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1859). Conan Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh where he met Doctor Joseph Bell, whose amazing deductions about the history of his patients fascinated the young student. After completing his studies, Conan Doyle served as a ship's doctor on voyages to Greenland and West Africa, and eventually opened his own practice. In his spare moments, he began writing. Calling on his memories of Doctor Bell, Conan Doyle created a detective who used his great powers of deduction to solve crimes. The first such story, A Study in Scarlet, introduced the detective Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Doctor Watson, in 1887. All told, Conan Doyle wrote fifty-six Sherlock Holmes stories and four Holmes novels.

It's the birthday of painter and printmaker Mary Cassatt, born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (1844 or 1845). The daughter of a wealthy Pittsburgh businessman, she traveled to Europe with her family and lived abroad for four years. In 1874, one her paintings was exhibited at the Paris Salon. The painter Degas admired her style, and invited her to join his group of painters, the Impressionists. Cassatt and Degas developed a lifelong friendship, and she participated in several of the Impressionists' exhibits.

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