Feb. 27, 2006


by Ingrid Wendt

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Poem: "Prego" by Ingrid Wendt from Surgeonfish. © WordTech Editions. Reprinted with permission.


Ask for something, Per
, please, the answer is
Prego. Please.

Thank you, Grazie, thank you,
you say. Instead of you're welcome?
Prego. The answer is please.

Prego, listen, here in Italy, every
time you think you're polite, this lift
of the verbal eyebrow, this rise

and fall of the voice like a hand
on its way to your shoulder, insistent
lifeline picking you up,

letting you go
again. No problem! Prego
pulls up the covers and tucks you in.

Cape of Saint Martin. Communion
wafer on each Italian tongue. Prego.
Please, Prego, I pray to you,

Prego, don't
worry. Let me
do something for you.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1860 that the photographer Mathew Brady took the first of several portraits of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had come to New York City to give an anti-slavery speech at the Cooper Union and he thought a portrait might help his presidential campaign.

Brady was one of the first Americans to get into photography, and within a few years he was known as one of the best portrait photographers in the country. Brady was the first person to take a photograph of an American president when he photographed President Zachary Taylor in 1849.

The portrait was difficult to take, in part because Lincoln was so tall. Brady usually used a head clamp to immobilize his subjects, but the clamp didn't reach Lincoln's head. So Lincoln had to stand absolutely still for several minutes of his own free will. The photograph worked out, though, and it was published on the cover of Harper's Weekly. Lincoln later claimed the photograph and the Cooper's Union speech had made him president.

It's the birthday of novelist and humorist Peter De Vries, born in Chicago, Illinois (1910). His parents were immigrants from Holland, and he grew up in a Dutch section of Chicago. He later said, "In addition to being immigrants, and not able to mix well with the Chicago Americans around us, we were Dutch Reformed Calvinists ... who, in fact, had considerable trouble mixing with one another. We were the elect, and the elect are barred from everything, you know, except heaven."

He eventually rebelled against his upbringing, but he never quite got over the strangeness of worldly things, and it inspired him to begin writing satirical fiction. He got a part-time job as an associate editor at Poetry magazine, and while working for the magazine, he wrote an essay about the work of James Thurber, and the two men became friends. Thurber later invited De Vries to join the writing staff of the New Yorker, where De Vries worked on cartoons, supplying captions for pictures that other people drew, and he also wrote humorous stories for the magazine.

De Vries went on to publish many humorous novels, including Comfort Me With Apples (1956) and The Tents of Wickedness (1959). But by the late 1950s, his work grew darker when his young daughter Emily came down with leukemia. De Vries began to spend more and more of his days at the hospital with his daughter. In a letter to a friend at the time he wrote, "One trip through a children's ward and if your faith isn't shaken, you're not the type who deserves any faith."

His daughter died in 1961, and the following year he published an autobiographical novel called The Blood of the Lamb (1962), about a man named Don Wanderhope who grows up in a strictly religious family only to lose his faith when his daughter dies. It was the darkest book De Vries had ever published. Most of his readers were shocked at the time but critics now consider it his masterpiece.

It's the birthday of Irwin Shaw, born in the Bronx, New York City (1913). He wrote a series of formulaic, potboiler novels, such as The Young Lions (1948) and Rich Man, Poor Man (1970). But at the same time he was publishing a series of dark short stories in the New Yorker magazine and collecting them in books such as Sailor Off the Bremen (1939) and Welcome to the City (1942). Critics consider these short stories his most important work. The most well known of these stories is "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses."

It's the birthday of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, born in Portland, Maine (1807). The most well-known and best loved poet of his lifetime, he wrote poems such as "Evangeline" (1947), "The Song of Hiawatha" (1855), and "Paul Revere's Ride" (1863). And in "The Village Blacksmith" (1841) he wrote,

"Under a spreading chestnut tree,
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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