A. Jay Adler talks about humanity, entanglement, the craft of writing, & inspiration behind his new poetry book.
The story of my writing life is the story of my life, which is a story of no special interest except for how all stories are part of the one great story, and one can’t really understand that great story without seeing it in each smaller story. This is a political truth, too, which is to say it is a human truth. Human history shows pretty well, for those who care to witness, that one cannot genuinely love humanity without loving people, individual people, and seeing them, individually, in humanity. The utopian dream produces dystopian reality. But that makes it sound simpler than it is. Words can do that.
In my poem “The Words,” part of my forthcoming collection, Waiting for Word, from Finishing Line Press, I write of the varied “dry salvages on which I wrecked” in life and how on them, hopefully, I “[t]hought I’d plant myself, bloom libraries / of lives I’d write to live.” I had considered writing the alternative “lives I’d live to write,” but the truth was that, for much of my life, that wasn’t who I thought I was or what I’d planned for myself to be. Standing back and observing and looking steadily into what went on around me and within me was my ready way of being. I hadn’t been, well into my young manhood, very good at engaging the world, and to live in my imagination, within the fictions of my imagination, had always been the most natural expression of myself.
As a consequence of a number of complicated and even contrary factors — family relational challenges, the pain and mischances of sensitive introversion, increasing non-creative intellectual growth, and my first taste of actual, worldly command and success — I discovered that I possessed other selves, other parts of my one self. They fulfilled me in new and different ways, and often more quickly — bolstering me against the ravages of the world — than did the creative life, so I was often tempted by those “tributary lives” and their “island distances horizoned like shimmery lures.”
Waiting for Word is an expression, the poetic concentration, of the never-forsaken struggle to maintain that one path I always did know was true. Though I had steeped myself in poetry since my teens, I did not begin to write poetry, among my other writing pursuits, until I was well into my forties. So there is, too, in the poems, the reflectiveness of a man already past a good part of his life and peering at the end. Or as I envision it contrarily in “Backstroke”:
Straight ahead, behind
what prompts us persists–
push off and kick–
but pales, too, a rippling gleam
we leave in the wake
stroke after stroke
a long departing gaze
reaching to arrive.
For all that, while the poetry in the volume’s pages is very personal — as in lyric and introspective (at times, in the writing, painfully so) — it is not particularly personal, which is to say it isn’t confessional. Were I one of the current age’s seemingly limitless number of cultural celebrities, a reader would be deeply disappointed. One will learn next to, if not nothing of my sexuality, suicide attempts, loves and broken relationships, abandoned children or bitter parentage, or struggles with alcohol and the needle. I would rather you find yourself in the poetry than me. Though, of course — there is always though — I am everywhere in it.
While in other writing I am intellectually compelled to political and cultural engagement, or a weaver of narrative threads, with a few exceptions the poetry is neither political nor narrative nor culturally of the moment. It is disentangled from those attractions.
Entanglement is a word. Among the sciences, my greatest interest has always been physics, especially astro- and particle physics. Macro and micro. I love, particularly, the metaphors of physics. Entanglement is one. Webster’s tells us, first, that an entanglement is something that entangles, confuses or ensnares. Only second is it stated that it is the condition of being deeply involved. One might argue that it is only that condition, first, of deep involvement, that can lead to the confused ensnarement. Yet to be ensnared is to be drawn — against one’s intention — into deeper involvement. There is, anyway, the clear negative, one might say sticky, connotation in the word that romantic entanglement, for instance, well captures.
Quantum entanglement, in physics, we can learn at Wikipedia, “is a physical phenomenon that occurs when a pair or group of particles are generated, interact, or share spatial proximity in a way such that the quantum state of each particle of the pair or group cannot be described independently of the state of the others, including when the particles are separated by a large distance.” I’ve added the italics.
My parents’ origins are separated by great distance from mine. They weren’t Holocaust survivors (all of my grandparents and my father emigrated to the United States before the Holocaust), but not unlike many Jewish concentration camp survivors — my father lived through every kind of degradation of 20th-century European Jewish life but the concentration camp — my parents were very cautious of personal entanglement with others. They were deeply committed, in love and obligation, to family and friends, but they kept the circle of that loving commitment small. They cautiously limited their entanglements. It took me a long time to recognize that their children inherited that reserve and disinclination to be ensnared. While I, like most other people, have spent a lifetime “seeking in my vocabulary / some cognate for this long transmission / of intimacy” (“A Lexicology of the Middle Years”), there is the learned belief about people that, well, they can be trouble — as when the poem “Things in Themselves” ends with a hint of their introduction into the world: “Then a bud pushes relentless petals against the tock / And a shadow passes over the clock.”
In “La Habana Nueva,” my encounter on the street with the Habanero Cesar, which leads to “the bar where no tourists go / sluggish and dark like the future” and turns “into richer rum, a dollar a shot / on you,” ends with
A few convertible pesos more, for the baby’s milk
and his crazy eye catches your wallet
swollen with his desire, and you flee
a lover from too much need
ditch guilty cigarettes on the counter
because he wants your friendship
but your money more.
In contrast, my partner in life and creativity, Julia, to speak of the aforementioned relentless, is a relentless entangler, of herself with others, of others with each other. It is one of her passions. As far back as when we first met, she would oft quote to me W. B. Yeats’ closing lines from “The Municipal Gallery Revisited”: “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, / And say my glory was I had such friends.”
How entangled does Julia get? Let me tell you about the rooster.
This semester, with my classes online, and Zooming from my home office, I have stared out its downtown Los Angeles Chinatown window early mornings at a grassy, tree-spotted slope bordering Hill Street. I never did tell the students of my morning class that, as we all wrestled with Kafka and Borges, I would observe a rooster emerge from its hideaway beneath a low Sago Palm and commence its waddling, herk-a-jerk breakfast peck at the turf. I soon concluded — after a gym-substitute, pandemic power walk through the neighborhood — that it had escaped from stud service at a nearby Chinese poultry shop. (“Run,” I imagined the crowded cocks and hens cackling after him as he fled to the back door and freedom, “Run for your life! Do it for us! Live!”)
Informed of Rocky the Rooster’s existence, Julia began to worry about his sustenance and commenced planning to deliver cups of feed to him. I did not so think. Among all the unwritten poems, stories, and books buried beneath ungraded papers, I would not be playing the part of Mickey to Rocky’s second act. He’d have to fight this one by himself. As it happened, before Julia could get to him — because she was otherwise entangled — Rocky disappeared. We live not far from Union Station. Maybe the Rock met a chick and hopped a train.
That other entanglement of Julia’s is Jose, a homeless, undocumented Mexican immigrant living as kind of guardian of an alley on the streets of downtown Los Angeles. Julia, a documentary and street photographer, has been photographing Jose’s life in the alley for six years. They have, inevitably, become friends and are quite fond of each other. When Jose came to Southern California as a teen nearly forty years ago, he hoped to see Disneyland. He never has. His hope now is to return to Mexico. Julia’s hope, her project near its end, is to help him do both.
Large numbers of the homeless in DTLA, as it is known, are not, as the name suggests, financially down-on-their luck homeless people. Very significantly, among those for whom life has collapsed from beneath them, subsisting at the lowest margins, they are severely mentally ill or substance abusing, often both, adrift in the haze of their disconnection from the world around them. They wander and lie in the streets of downtown like ghosts of Macondo, who test the capacity of their fellows — shopping and dining and playing all around them — to avoid and ignore a social despair that, so far, has proven beyond repair.
Looking out at Hill Street from that office window, before which I now write, among the young and older workers at the city and county municipal buildings who make their rush-hour treks back and forth between Chinatown parking lots and downtown’s Civic Center, I watch other homeless men and women migrate from refuge to daily resort, or wander out into traffic and gesticulate private dramas among invisible antagonists. I sit in my spacious, modern apartment, gazing across a green, urban ravine more than a little metaphorical, more than a little illusory in the measure of its distance, to the roadway overpass where a human parade passes by. I think of a Sharon Olds poem, “The Victims,” in which the speaker, a child of a broken marriage and family, contemplates, in the end, the spurned husband and father she envisions among the homeless on the street. After years of teaching the poem, I wrote “Gravity,” also thinking of that father, and of a daughter having sought him out, unsuccessfully, to recover him:
She looks for me now in her oldest dreams
hopes to find me there weightless and young
and she with her gull cries trailing long legs above the cresting waves.
But she learns in the shifting moan of night
there’s more fall in the sky can ever be lofted back in flight.
Gravity’s our law, and all momentum moves to the massive center.
And there’s where she spies me, with all the rest
each hung suspended in the dark silent current
bobbing slowly in his single shaft of pain
drifting up, drifting down, passing sideways like fish
in the cold blue light that names us.
We speak of “the homeless.” We struggle to remember, among the ghostly abstractions of a social ill we do not cure, that each is a particular homeless person, like Julia’s friend Jose, who fits into none of the boxes I put together above. People wander uncertainly all their lives — in their common history, all their lives on this planet — between the particular and the general, in the act of reasoning, in acts of human interest and care.
Vladimir Nabokov, who famously hated “general ideas” in literature, and the very literature of ideas, was a master of particularity — the sensate moment of conscious experience that is the matter of life from moment to moment, the reason, in the end, that life, self-consciously considered, matters. He needed no other justification, in Speak, Memory, than his recall of it in all its minute, enlivening specificity, to recount, of a childhood Mademoiselle, “a large woman, a very stout woman,” how
she sits down, or rather she tackles the job of sitting down, the jelly of her jowl quaking, her prodigious posterior, with the three buttons on the side, lowering itself warily; then, at the last second, she surrenders her bulk to the wicker armchair, which, out of sheer fright, bursts into a salvo of crackling.
Nabokov thought himself, one might say, blessedly, richly endowed with such particularity of consciousness. He marveled at it:
How small the cosmos (a kangaroo’s pouch would hold it), how paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection, and its expression in words! I may be inordinately fond of my earliest impressions, but then I have reason to be grateful to them. They led the way to a veritable Eden of visual and tactile sensations.
For a writer, however, Nabokov tells us, that private Eden is not the end of value for those treasured impressions of the world:
One night, during a trip abroad, in the fall of 1903, I recall kneeling on my (flattish) pillow at the window of a sleeping car (probably on the long-extinct Mediterranean Train de Luxe, the one whose six cars had the lower part of their body painted in umber and the panels in cream) and seeing with an inexplicable pang, a handful of fabulous lights that beckoned to me from a distant hillside, and then slipped into a pocket of black velvet: diamonds that I later gave away to my characters to alleviate the burden of my wealth.
Every writer has a black velvet pocket of diamonds, polished or uncut, to give away to readers. It is the entanglement they are born for.
Back in the late 2000 aughts, during what may be thought the heyday of blogging, I blogged, too, at the sad red earth. I mixed politics and culture, long personal essays and memoir. Julia was surprised by the degree of personal revelation in which I sometimes engaged, unlike anything before or since. I explained then that it suited my creative purpose at the time, with the blog. It was the creative purpose that determined my choices and revelations, and not any need personally to expose and share myself.
Among the revelations was my writing about the sudden death by heart attack at the time of my older brother, Jeff. Beyond his later importance and influence in my life, for the first decade of my life, Jeff and I had shared a bedroom, and for much of the next decade, too. So many of the distant, beckoning lights of my own life, crushed by my delicate childhood consciousness into the diamonds of my wealth, had been seen by Jeff, as well. I came to think after he died that, in a way, Jeff had been a kind of secret sharer of my life. An almost exquisite melancholia at the transience of that acquired wealth, alleviated throughout my life only by memorializing its riches in some manner on the page, gained still more, and more personal relief in the knowledge that Jeff had been beneficiary of it, too. It had been real, I could know, because Jeff — and only Jeff — could confirm it.
What was it?
It was a soft, glowing quality of the light in the Northeastern, more pastoral part of Queens, New York, on a particular day early in the second half of the 20th century. The blue hue of the sky above the fragrant grass. The dome of the earth over the muted soundings of the orchestral street. Within that light, a shadow-vision that fell across the break between a wall and the ground it met there. The gravel we rolled idly underfoot. What the breeze across our hairless lips bore on it then. The unquestionable mystery of it all. That moment.
Only Jeff and I knew it.
And now, perhaps, in a way, you, too. We have become entangled.
unshadowed across the face of it:
hills and towns, barns and buildings,
streets, still and motive, hearts at rest
or rapid beat, aflame with fire of it.
How summer sprang from it, seasoned,
sang. How, striving, fell into feral winter
or spirited the dark away. How love,
blossomed and broken, bore it.
(“There Being,” from ‘Waiting for Word.’)