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The star of this duet is my "27" coming of age novel, written nights among moths and ghosts in an old Hitler-era army barracks to strains of Mozart. I was a young U.S. Army soldier, stationed in 1970s West Germany during the Cold War. Yes, at moments you are aware it was written by a young guy; it is authentic.

C'est la vie (That's Life: A Love Affair) was actually a nostalgic retrospective on my lost past in New Haven, wellspring of my poetic art; and its women, my first loves. Titled cryptically Jon+Merile in manuscript, it is the story of a 23 year old poet's wild love affair with the beautiful young wife of an older prof in a 1973 New England college town (New Haven).

Talented, aspiring 23 year old poet Jon Harney graduated from a small college, and is now mowing lawns and doing other odd jobs around Yale University while showing his verse portfolio to New York City publishers. He meets a lonely young woman, Merile Doherty. She explains to Jon that her name is pronounced like Merrill, but she has softened and feminized it so it looks different than it sounds--an apt metaphor for her life. Her husband Bill is an archeologist on faculty at Yale University. Bill is a bit older and colder, vacant at affection, always gone, never quite there for her. He is Absent Without Emotional Leave (AWEL).

When Merile meets Jon Harney, she's been alone again for a time. Bill is far off in Australia digging for bones, while also digging chicks in Sydney. He phones to tell her he has fallen in love with an Australian woman, and is going to leave Merile. That's before he calls to tell her he isn't. That's how it goes. Merile is vulnerable and Jon Harney is smitten. Their chemistry is incendiary. Like hungry wolves, they cannot get enough of each other. Their mad, passionate love affair is as glorious as it is doomed.

In 2016, I unearthed the long-lost, dusty manuscript, found it very well written for a first draft by a 27 year old poet forty years ago, and polished it for publication. I was troubled, because something seemed missing, until I realized that it needed some real poetry inside to validate Jon Harney's ambitions. In an aha! moment, I blended my own "27" final selection of my favorite poetry with the novel, and here we have it: the 27duet (more info at 27duet.com).

It's odd how I wrote backwards, into an idealized past, while stationed in Europe in such an enviable and idyllic situation. The Army does get in your eyes and you may get tangled in the camouflage netting instead of seeing the big picture. I was single, healthy, educated, and owned a cool orange VW van in which my buddies and I drove around Europe. Great places like Heidelberg, Paris, Brussels, or Luxembourg were a few hours' drive away. My job (junior enlisted, first tour) was largely 9-5, aside from the usual Army rigamarole of alerts and duties. I always had poetry and stories percolating in my head, whether in the Quartier Latin in Paris, or the castle at Heidelberg, or a Palatinate wine festival. I had a stable base ("three hots and a cot") from which to cruise every weekend--or stay in the barracks, go the office alone, and type novels.

By "27" I mean not just my age or any old age. It is the mythic and notorious time when lyric poets and rock stars flame out. Think of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. I had an earlier model, French poet Arthur Rimbaud, whose career spanned several years before he stopped writing at 19. He changed the world, that teenager, yet he never wrote again. He became a gun runner in Africa, and died at 37. I did not die. I carried my poetic voice on to a decades of prose writing. I have authored many books (including history-nonfiction) all imbued with an intoxicating, lyric wine grown richer and mellower with time but not any more passionate and song-filled than under Lili Marlene's lantern by that barracks back in Rheinland-Pfalz.

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Jean-Thomas Cullen's novel and poems written at 27 in Europe while in the Army in 1976

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