Oct. 3, 2004

Only Years

by Kenneth Rexroth

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Poem: "Only Years," by Kenneth Rexroth, from Sacramental Arts (Copper Canyon Press).

Only Years

I come back to the cottage in
Santa Monica Canyon where
Andrée and I were poor and
Happy together. Sometimes we
Were hungry and stole vegetables
From the neighbors' gardens.
Sometimes we went out and gathered
Cigarette butts by flashlight.
But we went swimming every day,
All year round. We had a dog
Called Proclus, a vast yellow
Mongrel, and a white cat named
Cyprian. We had our first
Joint art show, and they began
To publish my poems in Paris.
We worked under the low umbrella
Of the acacia in the dooryard.
Now I get out of the car
And stand before the house in the dusk.
The acacia blossoms powder the walk
With little pills of gold wool.
The odor is drowsy and thick
In the early evening.
The tree has grown twice as high
As the roof. Inside, an old man
And woman sit in the lamplight.
I go back and drive away
To Malibu Beach and sit
With a grey-haired childhood friend and
Watch the full moon rise over the
Long rollers wrinkling the dark bay.

Literary Notes:

Today is the anniversary of the 1990 reunification of East and West Germany. The two countries had been divided since the end of World War II. The most visible sign of this division was the Berlin Wall that divided the former capital for twenty-eight years.

It's the birthday of English veterinarian and author James Herriot, born James Alfred Wight in Sunderland, England (1916). Growing up, he never wanted to be anything other than a veterinarian. After going to school in Glasgow he dreamed of having a cutting-edge and flashy practice. He instead wound up, in his own words, "sitting on a high Yorkshire moor in shirt sleeves and Wellingtons, smelling vaguely of cows." But he fell in love with Yorkshire and the challenging life of a country veterinarian. After over twenty-five years as a veterinarian, Herriot started writing. He said he wanted to tell people what it was like to be an animal doctor before penicillin and modern medicine, and also about all of the people and funny events that he met on his daily rounds. It took him a long time to decide to finally write down his stories. In the end, his wife challenged him. He was telling her about his day, and said that he would put part of it in his book. She said to him, "Jim, you are never going to write a book." She reminded him that he had been talking about it for twenty-five years and had never written anything. He protested. She replied that old vets don't just suddenly write books. Herriot said, "That did it. I went straight out, bought a lot of paper and got down to the job." His first book was If Only They Could Talk (1970). It took him four years to get it published. The publishers only made 1200 copies, and it was not a success. He thought that this would be his only book. But he still had more stories to tell, and so he wrote another book, It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet (1972). He suddenly became successful when these two works were published together in the United States as All Creatures Great and Small (1972). The book became a bestseller, and Herriot became a famous author.

It's the birthday of etiquette expert Emily Post, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1873). She started her writing career for financial reasons. Her husband had lost his fortune in a great stock panic. After this, he and Post divorced, and she had to raise her two daughters by herself. At first she was a novelist, but after fifteen years, her publisher convinced her to write an etiquette manual. She refused, because she thought that she knew nothing about etiquette and because she hated etiquette books. Then she read one of the books that had been published, and thought that it was completely wrong. So she wrote her own. Post's first etiquette manual was published in 1922. It was titled Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home. She continued to write manuals for "high society" until 1960. In addition to her books, Post wrote a syndicated newspaper column that was carried by over two hundred newspapers. She said, "Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use."

It's the birthday of Thomas Wolfe, born in Asheville, North Carolina (1900). He wrote autobiographical novels, including Look Homeward Angel (1929). In that book he fictionalized his hometown and the people he knew in it. He cast himself as Eugene Gant, a kid who grew up reading history and adventure books. Wolfe spent many years trying to become a playwright. But he was convinced to become a novelist by Aline Bernstein, a married woman twenty years older than Wolfe with whom he had a five-year love affair. He dedicated Look Homeward, Angel to her, and made her the model for several characters in his novels. Many of Wolfe's writings were published after his death at a young age from meningitis. Before leaving on his last trip, he left an eight-foot-tall crate of notebooks and writing with his editor. This included outlines for his next two novels. After his sudden death, the editor went through the writings and created two novels, The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can't Go Home Again (1940).

It's the birthday of American novelist Gore Vidal, born Eugene Luther Vidal, in West Point, New York (1925). He's the author of many novels, including Washington, D.C. (1967) and Duluth: A Novel (1983). His essays are collected as United States: Essays, 1952-1992 (1992). Vidal said, "Style is knowing who you are, what to say, and not giving a damn."

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