contributing editors

A. Jay Adler
Los Angeles Southwest College

adlerA. Jay Adler, a New Yorker always, is Professor of English at Los Angeles Southwest College. He earned his B.A., with concentrations in English literature and philosophy, at the City University of New York, and his M.A. and M.Phil. degrees in English literature from Columbia University. Before his teaching life, Adler was an executive in the air courier business, directing client shipments and himself to points around the globe. Along with writing, literature, film, jazz, photography, thinking, and general adventure, travel – by air, sea, locomotive, cable, four wheels, two wheels (motorized and muscle-driven) and by foot – remains a passion.

Adler writes in all genres. A 1989 nominee for a junior fellowship in the Harvard Society of Fellows, his poetry, for which he was awarded a 2002 residency grant from the Vermont Studio Center, has appeared in such publications as Blood Lotus, Tipton Poetry Journal, Pebble Lake Review, and Adagio Verse Quarterly, among others. Recent fiction is the short story “La Revolución” at the Ampersand Review. Journalism has included essays on the history of Route 66 and westward travel for DoubleTake and an account of the now settled Individual Indian Money Trust Fund lawsuit against the Department of the Interior, in Tikkun. “Aboriginal Sin” was included in the 2009 anthology Global Viewpoints: Indigenous Peoples, from Greenhaven Press. Essays on film appear in Senses of Cinema and Bright Lights Film Journal. Among several screenplays, What We Were Thinking Of, since adapted for the stage, has won several awards, including second prize at the 1998 Maui Writers Conference Screenwriting Competition. During his 2008-09 sabbatical year, Adler traveled the country with photographer Julia Dean of The Julia Dean Photo Workshops working on a book documenting current Native American life. Also in progress is a composition textbook and Adler’s memoir of his father’s life, The Twentieth Century Passes. Adler blogs daily on politics, culture, and ideas at the the sad red earth.

Speaking in Voices

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

And a voice.

The first thing I look for in a poem is its voice. It is likely not the first thing I find. That may be an image, a sound, a surprising collision of words. These will help create the voice, but they are not yet it, and it is only once I hear the voice that I know if it is a poem for which I will feel passion, to which I will commit myself. How much more joy in the story if one loves to hear the storyteller’s voice.

With all its other virtues, there is the melancholic musical voice of Eliot’s “The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the grandiloquent heroism of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” the sprung-rhythm energy, as much in despair as in joy of the Lord, of Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is no different for me in poetry than it is in fiction, with narrative voice. Do I want to travel with this persona? Will I be ever engaged, even thrilled, and wish to return to it? Began Auden in “September 1, 1939,”

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade.

A direct, blunt voice, ready to deliver plainspoken truths. Tell it to me, brother.

Concluded Larry Levis, in “The Poem You Asked For,”

And the poem demanded the food,
it drank up all the water,

beat me and took my money,
tore the faded clothes
off my back,

said Shit,
and walked slowly away,
slicking its hair down.

Said it was going
over to your place.

Any poem that’s going to say sheeeit to me is welcome to come on over.

Paul Zimmer opens “The Eisenhower Years” with similar vernacular, if not so streetwise, voicings.

Flunked out and laid-off
Zimmer works for his father
At Zimmer’s Shoes for Women.
The feet of old women awaken
From dreams they groan and rub
Their hacked-up corns together

The more eccentric the voice, which is to say a distinctive, of-an-only-kind, there-can-hardly-be-its-like voice, the more I like it. Here is Atsuro Riley, in “Hutch,” conjuring a rural Southern world as much in the voice as in any detail.

From back when it was Nam time I tell you what.
Them days men boys gone dark groves rose like Vietnam bamboo.
Aftergrowth something awful.
Green have mercy souls here seen camouflage everlasting.
Nary a one of the brung-homes brung home whole.

So it was that the first time I read this issue’s featured poet, John Spaulding, it was the voice right away that clove me to him. From his 1986 collection Walking in Stone, about the Native American-European contact:

We are the knife people, iron men, coat people
and he-lands-sailing.
Souse eaters, house makers, husbands
of kine and goat and swine, farm builders
and keepers of kettle and scummer, word
scratchers, corn stealers and bad sleepers.

As if towns could build themselves.
As if stumps jumped from the ground or
flesh of beasts fell into trenchers.
As if paradise prevailed on earth.

The magisterial earth tone stood me up straight. This was not just one more pome. This was poetry.

It turns out Spaulding likes to write in different voices. Here he is writing in near Victorian high seriousness, as he begins, in “If With Merely Human Hopes”:

If with merely human hopes we live
under the sleep that keeps us from the dark
and if we can’t foresee the endless wind
that sniffs around our empty shell displayed
for us across a numb divide

and then concludes:

Just as today I thought
the sound we make at first is always crying,
but then I thought we must be still again
to hear the silence of our lives begin–
before the silence of our lives begins.

Spaulding assumes voices expressive of a poem’s theme or rhetorical strategy. So in “The Discovery,” we wonder just what it will be, related to us as it is in a single breathless cumulative sentence of twenty-three lines.

Clearly the women could not be blamed
for allowing the boys to run as they did
without supervision so far into the wood
or even suppressing for days the news
of their find, so astonished and
unbelieving as they might well have been
and fearing of the effect on the others,
for who could have known that …

Often, Spaulding’s voice is apparently reportorial, as in “Hartford, Vermont.”

The gas station attendant is closing up
for the night. The register cashed out.
Tires rolled inside. Pumps locked up.
His khaki uniform is stained with oil and gas,
his fingernails black. This man
who looks like John Garfield is turning
off the lights and locking the door

This is a voice adopted in many of the poems from “The White Train,” a volume of poetry, about photographs, that seems to mimic the recording act of the photographic image. However, in “Timothy O’Sullivan, Photographer,” from that volume, we are told that

The fortunate thing about his camera
was its ability to stray—
to put things in that didn’t belong,
like footprints in the sand.

So it is that something does not belong, amid its mundane descriptions, at the end of “Hartford, Vermont.” Or takes us by surprise in “The Grand Army of the Republic,” or, in the poem “The White Train” itself, is both – surprisingly out of place with the foregoing description.

In his new poems in this spring issue of West, Spaulding is speaking in still other voices, rough voices, rural western voices, knockabout voices, and we hear them as soon as we put the poems to our ear. Begins “Bruja”:

Today I thought of you, fast woman of Tucson,
near where you slept with coyotes howling
in your dreams.

Declares the speaker of “Dyer’s Weed,”

I am a crawler, a wing bone, a lover
of cats, a rasty fighter, and an ingrown
part of this very very earth.

Comes the warning at the very start of “I’m Just a Bad Boy All Dressed Up in Fancy Clothes”:

I’m just a bad bad boy
all dressed up in fancy clothes
a jive bomber a rocket 88
a war baby a cherry bomb
a rebel with no cause but me

Hm, wow, you want to say. Tell us more.

That’s John Spaulding speaking, and speaking and speaking – speaking in voices.

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