Friday, August 8, 2008

Lincoln stares back

My former professor and first serious poetry teacher, Dan Guillory, has for the last number of years been writing poems about Abraham Lincoln. I reviewed his collection of those poems for a forthcoming issue of Illinois Heritage. I was struck by several poems about the iconic photos that have come to mark Lincoln in the American imagination. In the book, each poem is preceded by a short historical headnote. Here's the text of both the note and the poem for one of the photo poems, along with what I think is the photo.

Butler's Ambrotype, August 13, 1860

In the summer of 1860, while Lincoln was campaigning for the presidency, Philadelphia artist John Henry Brown was hired to paint an official campaign portrait. He described his visit to Springfield in these words: "We [Brown and Lincoln] walked together from the executive chamber to a daguerrean establishment. I had half a dozen ambrotypes [positive image on a glass plate] taken of him before I could get one to suit me." The ambrotypist/daguerrotypist mentioned here is Springfield's Preston Butler, who photographed Lincoln on Aug. 13, 1860. The ambrotype shows Lincoln with atypically neat hair, combed smoothly over his forehead. Campaign badges were made from the photograph and sold for 10 cents each or $6 per thousand.

It's all very personal, you know.
You blink, and the camera blinks back
At you, the rolling eye returns
To haunt you, even the crushed satin
Necktie is honored in timelessness.
For once, they got the hair right.
I'm never this neat in Real Life.
But this isn't real -- I'm being
Sold like a piece of soap
Or a view of Niagara Falls.
No matter, for this is America
And I always wanted to become
The first truly modern President.

from Dan Guillory's The Lincoln Poems

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