Sep. 27, 2014

A City Girl Feeds Country Cows

by Sandra Becker

With handfuls of mown grass, I reach out to the shy cows
in their graze-hungry fields who resist my offering,

retreat backwards from the barbed fence that shocks my hand.
I am a New Yorker, dumb to the ways of cow, eagle, horse,

familiar with the aggressive ways of the pigeon who pimps
for crumbs, the squirrel who sprints across window panes,

fleets of cockroaches who invade the night.
Now, I see cows corralled in their own muck,

stopped by fences just beyond lush green
meadows, assailed by armies of flies.

Cows, I pray you fresh cool breezes and plentiful
rich pastures. Cows, I pray you kind masters.

"A City Girl Feeds Country Cows" by Sandra Becker, from Imperfect Matter. © Word Tech Editions, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the British physiologist and medical researcher Robert (Geoffrey) Edwards, born in Witney, Oxfordshire, England (1925). With his colleague Patrick Steptoe at the Centre for Human Reproduction in Oldham, England, he perfected a technique for the in vitro fertilization of the human egg, making possible the birth of Louise Brown, the world's first "test-tube baby," in 1978.

It's the birthday of writer Joyce Johnson (books by this author), born Joyce Glassman in New York City (1935). She ran away to Greenwich Village when she was still a teenager, and got to know people at the center of the emerging Beat Generation. Her troubled, two-year affair with Jack Kerouac is recounted in her memoir Minor Characters, A Young Woman's Coming of Age in the Beat Orbit of Jack Kerouac (1999), which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. She has also published Doors Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters 1957-1958, the letters she and Kerouac exchanged during their relationship.

It's the birthday of hardboiled crime novelist Jim Thompson (books by this author), born in Anadarko, Oklahoma (1906). He's best known for his novel The Killer Inside Me (1952), about a friendly, beloved sheriff who is also a serial killer. Thompson grew up in a town full of cattle thieves, gunfighters, and bank robbers. He tried for seven years to get a high school diploma, working all night and going to school all day, but he finally dropped out and wandered around Texas, living as a hobo and working in the oil fields. One of his hobo friends encouraged him to write about his experiences, so he did.

He spent the 1930s writing for true crime magazines. His mother, his wife, and his sister would comb through the newspaper looking for crime stories, and he rewrote them as fiction. The newspaper stories often gave him nightmares, and he rewrote them with an emphasis on grisly violence, so that people would be as horrified as he was. When he began to publish crime novels like The Killer Inside Me (1952) and After Dark, My Sweet (1955), they were so dark and violent that they were only issued as pulp paperbacks and didn't get any critical attention.

When Thompson died in 1977, most of his books were out of print, but he told his wife to keep his manuscripts. He said, "Just you wait, I'll become famous after I'm dead about 10 years." About 10 years later, in the mid-1980s, all of his crime novels were republished. They are now considered classics of the genre.

It's the birthday of poet Kay Ryan (books by this author), born in San Jose, California (1945). She grew up in working-class towns around the Mojave Desert, where her father was an oil well driller. At UCLA, she submitted some poems to the poetry club, but she was informed that her poems did not meet their standards. She was hurt, and she said that after that she "stayed pretty remote from the joining business." Instead, she began working on a Ph.D. in literary criticism, but she never finished her doctorate — she said, "I couldn't bear the idea of being a doctor of something I couldn't fix." She said, "I didn't know what to do with myself. I was just so unhappy with my life."

She moved to Marin County and got a job teaching at the College of Marin. She said: "I was reluctant to think of myself as a writer because it required a kind of emotional exposure that I didn't want to commit to. I never liked the image of the poet, and I still don't to this day. There is something way too romantic about it, and way too emotional and way too posturing. I come from clean-scrubbed people who would be embarrassed by that." On a 4,000-mile cross-country bike trip in 1976, she realized that poetry was her calling. When she got home, she began writing a poem every day based on a tarot card, so she had to write about abstract things like revenge, love, and death. She said: "Death, I've never minded that so much. Love, I minded because it's just so icky, so overdone." It took her eight years to get a poem accepted in a serious publication. She was so depressed about her career as a poet that her partner, Carol Adair, convinced a bunch of friends to chip in the money to self-publish Ryan's first book of poems. In 2008, she became the poet laureate of the United States.

It's the birthday of novelist Louis Auchincloss (books by this author), born on Long Island in Lawrence, New York (1917). He was born into an old, wealthy New York family. He went to Yale, and while he was there he wrote a dramatic 400-page novel inspired by Madame Bovary. It was rejected, and he was so humiliated that he dropped out of Yale, announced that he would never write again, and went to law school instead. He said, "A man born to the responsibilities of a brownstone bourgeois world could only be an artist or writer if he were a genius," and he didn't feel that he was a genius. Instead, he became a successful lawyer, and discovered that he actually liked the law, but he didn't give up writing after all. He enlisted in the Navy, and on board a ship to Japan he wrote a second novel. He decided it was terrible, so he threw it in the garbage; he almost instantly regretted it, but when he went to retrieve it the garbage was gone.

When he published his novel The Indifferent Children (1947), he used a pseudonym because his parents were worried that he would reflect badly on the family. It got good reviews, and he decided to begin publishing under his own name. He wrote more than 60 books of fiction — novels and short stories — even while he practiced law for more than 40 years. He said: "I think my secret is to use bits and fractions of time. I trained myself to do that. Anybody can do it. I could write sitting in surrogate's court answering calendar call."

His books include The House of Five Talents (1960), The Rector of Justin (1964), The Embezzler (1966), Her Infinite Variety (2000), and Last of the Old Guard (2008).

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