Jul. 8, 2004

One of the Locals

by Clemens Starck

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Poem: "One of the Locals," by Clemens Starck, from Traveling Incognito. © Wood Works. Reprinted with permission.

One of the Locals

Summer vacations, traveling with the family,
what bothered me
was being a tourist—I didn't like
being conspicuous, I wanted
to pass as one of the locals, to speak the local dialect
with no trace of an accent. Invisibility
was my ideal.
My secret ambition—to be a spy.

In fantasy, I would parachute
behind enemy lines,
and then—disguised, let's say, as the shy, unobtrusive
village chimney sweep—
engage in daring acts of sabotage.
Later, while being awarded the Croix de guerre,
I would modestly downplay my exploits,
crediting my fallen comrades.

As a matter of fact, my career in espionage
never really got off the ground,
although in practicing for it I learned
to be circumspect,
and of course to be always careful
in everything I say.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1822 that poet Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned. He had spent the past four years traveling around Italy with his wife, and it was during this period that he wrote almost all of his most famous poems, including Prometheus Unbound (1820). He was living in La Spezia, on the west coast of Italy, at the time of his death.

Shelley had just bought a schooner two months earlier. The boat was twenty-four feet long, with twin masts, and it was called Don Juan, after the poem by his friend Lord Byron. He often spent mornings sitting on the boat as it lay anchored in the bay, reading and writing as he bobbed up and down with the waves.

When the weather got nice, Shelley started taking his boat on short outings, and he was looking forward to making a few longer trips with his wife during the summer. He wrote in a letter to a friend, "[My boat] is swift and beautiful, and appears quite a vessel.... We drive along this delightful bay in the evening wind, under the summer moon, until earth appears another world."

On July 1, Shelley and his friend Edward Williams left from La Spezia to Pisa. They started their return trip on July 7, and on this day, July 8, 1822, Shelley set off from Livorno to La Spezia, a trip of about fifty-five miles. There was a storm approaching from the southwest, and most of the Italian boats came into the harbor, but Shelley wanted to make it back that evening. Shelley's friend Captain Roberts watched them sail away from a lighthouse, and as the storm got worse he began to grow worried. He took a large boat out to sea and offered to take Shelley and Williams on board, but Shelley refused. A sailor said through a speaking trumpet, "If you will not come on board for God's sake reef your sails or you are lost." According to the sailor, Williams tried to lower the sails but Shelley grabbed him by the arm and wouldn't let him. The boat sank in the Gulf of Spezia later that evening. When Shelley's body washed up on shore ten days later, a copy of Keats's poems was found in his back pocket.

It's the birthday of columnist and novelist Anna Quindlen born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1953). She started out as a fiction writer: she published a story in Seventeen magazine when she was a junior in college. But right after she graduated she was hired by the New York Post, and she decided newspaper writing was more fun than writing fiction. She eventually got a job as a reporter for the New York Times.

Quindlen started writing a weekly column called "Life in the '30s," in which she talked about marriage, motherhood, religion, and other personal issues. She wrote about being raised as a Catholic, about the death of her father, and about the birth of her children. The columns were incredibly popular: they were syndicated in more than sixty newspapers, and Quindlen became known as a voice for the baby boom generation. Some people accused her of writing about trivial issues, but Quindlen once said, "Anybody who tries to convince me that foreign policy is more important than child rearing is doomed to failure."

Quindlen managed to complete her first novel while she was writing the "Life in the '30s" column, and it was published as Object Lessons in 1991. She's since published three more novels, including Black and Blue (1999) and her latest, Blessings (2003). She writes a biweekly column for Newsweek magazine, and her latest collection of columns, Loud and Clear, came out earlier this year.

Quindlen said, "Life is not so much about beginnings and endings as it is about going on and on and on. It is about muddling through the middle."

It's the birthday of the novelist and travel writer Alec Waugh, born in London (1898). His father was a writer and publisher, and his younger brother was the writer Evelyn Waugh. He wrote his first novel when he was seventeen years old. He had been expelled from school for having a homosexual relationship, and had just joined the army. It was the middle of World War I, and he knew that he there was a chance he would be killed, so he wrote his first novel with incredible energy and finished it in seven and a half weeks. It was published as The Loom of Youth (1917), and it caused a huge stir because of its sexual content. He wrote about homosexuality at a time when it was a taboo subject in England, and he became known as a champion of rebellious young people.

Waugh wrote several novels and travel books after the War. His best-known novel is Island in the Sun (1956), set on the imaginary Caribbean island of Santa Maria. His books of travel writing include Love and the Caribbean (1958) and Bangkok: The Story of a City (1970).

It's the birthday of poet Jean de la Fontaine, born in Chateau-Thierry, France (1621). He wrote several novels and long poems, but he's best known for his Fables, the first two volumes of which appeared in 1668.

He wrote, "It is impossible to please all the world and one's father."

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