Born in Los Angeles in 1918, Don Emblen was one of those tough old believers, a poet, publisher and bibliophile who lived hard. Lifelong friends included Donald Hall, Robert Bly, and the late William Stafford. He worked for what was then the Los Angeles City News Service, chased submarines in the Navy, married three times, sired kids who produced grandkids, taught English Lit thirtysome years at the same Northern California college, and acted as a second father to my husband, whom he hired many years ago to teach there as well.
Don’s passions were myriad. He ran a hand-press; printed chapbooks and broadsides. He drove for Meals on Wheels; grew fruit and vegetables. He hiked and traveled, Nova Scotia to Prague, and wrote about all of it. He held salons: people read from new work; chamber ensembles serenaded. He published a monthly newsletter called The Reader’s Rejoinder, a literary almanac produced on his outsized manual typewriter. In 1999, he was crowned the first Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, where we live.
All this is to describe a polymath, whose driving passion was language. He wrote perhaps 4,000 poems, and several books — including an early biography of Peter Mark Roget, creator of the thesaurus. Though frail and wizened toward the end, Don’s verve never flagged. His gravelly voice often popped up on our answering machine with questions about a name or title or phrase. He critiqued our work; left sacks of fruit on our front porch.
Don died two years ago. We miss him fiercely.
After his memorial service, I wandered to a table bearing some of his effects. I saw the famous Emblen typewriter, an outsized, unwieldy old manual on which he’d scotch-taped the local library’s schedule. Then something else caught my eye: an early book co-written with his first wife, called The Palomino Boy, a young people’s novel about a Mexican-American child, hardcover: Viking Press, New York, 1948. Jacket and end papers by Lynd Ward, whose “graphic novels” were recently published in two volumes by the Library of America.
The clear plastic library cover had clouded; the pages yellowed around their edges. I looked at the book’s first sentence: Juan was as brown as the side of a mountain. I flipped to the back jacket flap. There was a stunning young Don, almost unrecognizably handsome, walking the beach with a dazzling first wife, arm tightly around her waist, their hair wind-whipped. They looked like movie stars: an ad for joy. It streamed from their bodies, their faces.
Always get the last word.
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I felt a litt1e seasick.
It wasn’t that I don’t know this is the way of things. Other remarkable friends have died, never attaining anything close to Don’s fabulous earthly score of ninety years. It wasn’t that I didn’t rejoice to see this evidence of a brilliant youth.
It was the book.
Who would remember it? To whom, besides family and intimates, could it now possibly matter? I held it in my hands like Yorick’s skull. Days later, I looked it up online. A smattering of libraries held copies; different bookfinders offered it as an antiquarian title, often for premium prices. I found a hand-typed 1948 University of Illinois Library list of new titles coming out that year, dismissing The Palomino Boy with a sniff: “not a must.” (It pleases me to think that the sniffer must be long dead.) And I found an old New York Times review—a two-paragraph blurb from 1949. It used dated terms (“Negro”) but its verdict was kind, signed by Cornelia Ernst Zagat, someone I now wish I could have known: “… Simplicity and a poetic quality in the writing and convincing characterization. Eight to ten-year-olds will appreciate this wise and beautiful story.”
The story broaches, with extreme gentleness, the problem of racism, or Otherness. The orphaned Juan, who lives with an American foster family, worries that he is the wrong color. Animal and human friends, of different colors, teach him otherwise. The illustrations (called “decoration” in the Times review) are dreamily beautiful, like woodcuts.
Don had never mentioned the book. I’d never known it existed. Coming upon it felt like finding a mummy in my basement. The dismay was complicated by my own writing life, kin to the hauntedness I always feel seeping from used-book stacks—the eyeball-stinging smell of aging paper, the curled, flaking pages—but in this instance, more sickeningly personal. Yes, Don wrote other books. But The Palomino Boy had been a novel by the young, for the young; an act of life, real and in its day, au courant.
Now it was a relic.
An adult novelist understands certain things rationally: call it mortal realism. We suppose we grasp the fact of our own eventual deaths. Secular writers can recite all the usual brave existential bromides: meaning is bound up in the process of making, in the richness of the life. But just beneath that sane veneer a wildly stubborn part of us, a magical thinking part, wants things to add up in our favor. And in bald point of fact, things rarely add up—rather, they add up too predictably. That afternoon, I felt with new sharpness (in stomach, lungs and heart) the limits of the artmaker’s quest—which, if we’re honest, is to leave something that will last, something that will continue to pulse with meaning.
What do we think of, these days, as lasting? Fifty years? Five hundred? With novels, we’re speaking of an art form that only found its footing in the 19th century. All I can attest is that sixty years struck me, while I held Don’s book in my hands, as both a very long tunnel, and a handful of sand.
Of course at some level (mostly unspoken) we understand that nearly everyone’s books will go the way of The Palomino Boy—all but those of a very well-known few. Beyond them, “the grave’s a fine and private place.” (It was one of Don’s favorite lines.)
Can one stop writing, after the physical reality of this truth enters one’s body?
Is there a way, in face of this, to make sense of the writer’s art, of the calling to make art, that avoids platitudes and specious sentiment?
Maybe. Probably not.
I don’t know.
Joan Frank is the author of four books of fiction: a fifth, a new novel, is scheduled for release in 2012. Her story collection, In Envy Country, won the 2010 Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction.