According to Cassandra Robison, editor of Magnolia: a Florida Journal of Literary Arts, “Lynn Strongin may be the Emily Dickinson of our times.”
Indeed, Lynn – whose book Spectral Freedoms earned her a 2009 nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry; and whom I had the distinct honor of editing during my brief stint at New Works Review – does have an extremely inventive, original style and lends to her work a charismatic moral force that well justify the comparison.
And this year she has two new books to add to her considerable ouvre: Orphan Thorns, published by Albuquerque’s JB Stillwater Publishing; and Bread of the Angels, published by the Ravenna Press.
Orphan Thorns (http://www.casadesnapdragon.com/Books/Orphan_Thorns), on which I will focus most particularly, bills itself as a novel in verse. It is a novel not so much in the traditional sense: there is no clear narrative arc; present and past moments tend to merge in a seemingly random and indistinct chronology; the voices and characters remain vaguely defined, though one voice and personality does stand out as the organizing presence on which all is held together. Still, the protagonist’s and her peripheral characters’ time does clearly enough span the years from childhood to advancing age; and the coherence of theme and the concrete images that ground the work in time and space do justify the larger poem’s designation as a sort of impressionistic and experimental poetic novel.
Both Orphan Thorns and Bread of the Angels draw on a common thread of thematic and contextual experience. Most prominent is Lynn’s childhood acquaintance, as a victim of the post-WWII polio epidemic, of hospital wards and their young inhabitants, whether suffering from polio or some form of cancer or something else. Certainly a great portion if not all of her poetry is imbued with a consciousness of that personal and collective trauma, but in no way does this constant reduce the poetry to just another trite account of illness and overcoming. This poetry’s scope is universal in every way, encompassing the fruits of war in Europe and the growing environmental crisis from clear-cutting of mountain tops in the United States to Japan’s nuclear tragedy and recent meltdown.
She alludes, for instance, to “Nippon’s unprecedented multiple crisis of earthquake, tsunami, and radiation leak”; and then, a few lines later:
Stirring memories of Japan’s nuclear history
The shattered glass
The shattered bones
The rape of radiation
No morning can be radiant when this is going on. (pp. 41-2)
The following introductory poem and prologue, gives a sense of both this broad thematic scope and the stylistic playfulness that earns her comparison to Emily Dickinson:
Stars we Once Were
Watch out where are returned phoenixes from nests of milk: though children our voices cannot be extinguished our fire the perpetual flame
Nor the torch shone under quilts to read clandestinely as children
Or later in hospital (Christ’s age when he wandered into the wilderness, that boy)
To pleasure us against coarse linen with numbers like the blue numbers injected under the Jews’ skin.
Who can never hear applause, foundlings in a nun’s basket left on the revolving wheel for the Mother Superior to find morning come
By the century that dug the graves.
O for your love.
OOO Compassio Now nurses have entered my life in
Like loves, doves homecoming after a battle in Europe has left ground and air smoldering the color of angels wings:
Ash at the burnt tip rose a heart core:
Down I went like Alice down the hole
Into childhood hospital
Up I rose like a great big zero bubble-pipe of clay
from yesteryear, yesterday. (unnumbered page)
One thing that strikes me here is the allusion to Christ (the age is left unspoken, but likely corresponds to the narrator’s age of 12 when she went to hospital as stated in other poems), a Christ linked immediately to the tragedy of the Holocaust, with further allusions further into the poem. The suggested likeness of Christ’s suffering (at least as a type) to these other sufferers is developed in other poems as well, perhaps most explicitly in this passage: “Savior: Our savior, the one who has kissed the floors of the asylum, known the salt of its air. I feel your struggle as a hospitalized child but I too carried the whole bloody thing further and further I respect you to bloody hell to Jesus …” (p. 63).
I also delight here in something as simple as the slant rhyme between droves and the purely rhyming love / loves / doves of two lines before and the line immediately following. Such musical elements plus the creative use of spaces (like Dickinson’s dashes, perhaps) and other linguistic tricks that I will suggest in an example or two:
Orphaned children, orphan stars we once were who now lie in a ward
transferred to an operating theatre
s light does down upon us shine. (p. 25)
Striking here, besides the deliberately antiquated reverse syntax of “does down upon us shine” (which lends an appropriate bit of Biblical feel), is the enjambment (I believe I am using the term correctly) of the two parts, minus the apostrophe, of what I understand as the possessive God’s. By setting the God at the end of one line, followed by the stray s and light immediately thereafter, the reader is forced to pause on that altered syntax and absorb the surprise of form and meaning. She does similar things with an n in substitution for and – and there are other optical tricks that sometimes require an extended double-take, some of which I have yet to figure out.
The only problem with that, and one hardly worth mentioning, is that sometimes it becomes hard to distinguish between imaginative flourish and the errant typographical error. For example, is the ne in “a gem: ne in a million” intended to read one? and what about the hr in “Here is a raggedy string bear from the end of time: / child must have dropped him hr the slats in the merry go round / floor”? It occurs to me as I write that the hr, if intentional, could abbreviate her given the indeterminate gender of the bear, or just as well the poet’s customarily abbreviated thru: perhaps she means to suggest both? In any case, this is a minor quibble amidst such majestic and powerful work; and I must keep in mind that I have read both texts in a draft or final proof version.
The poet as a young woman
In any case there exists in Lynn Strongin’s poetry a great deal of sheer beauty and childish delight. Consider the simple sensuous pleasure of wordplays like “Rodents tunnel deeper runnel thru it,” for example, and “keep your troth bring froth / flower uncouth”; and, in poetry so rich in literary and artistic allusion of all sorts, name deformations like “Gertrude Stun” for Stein [slant rhyme with own end of next line], and, later “Friday [for Frida] Kahlo” – the pair of allusions to the great Mexican artist that I remember are highly appropriate, and at least once explicitly so, given her own life-long struggle with pain.
As for the title, as already evident above, some form of the root orphan (orphaned, orphanage, etc.) sprinkles the text from start to finish, and itself as adjective most commonly (though by no means exclusively) to the noun stars. One poem is entitled “Orphan Stars,” and based on some of my correspondence with Lynn I suspect that it was seriously considered as an alternative title for the book. But thorn is as substantially if not numerically present as here, if not precisely in the same adjective / noun syntax:
… Stars we once were
who will ever be
Once shinning down from the heavens
Now shining up from the grave
Opened: orphan voices of children fly out, the sharpest notes thorns: the
blood on the side Chinese red lacquer
The ruby or the mown down, renowned, rising phoenix from the fire.
After you were a nurse, you studied law, now thrown from the horse, Age, you will become a navigator:
Navigate thorns of stars, stars of thorn children re-appearing
After a century’s vanishing … (p. 53)
I also cannot resist pointing out the wordplay and slant rhyming in both passages, as between shinning and shining; mown and the pure-rhyming pair down / renowned; and thrown and thorn.
But to focus on the significance to the poem-novel of that word thorn: it certainly touches more immediately on life’s gritty struggle than the aspirational sense of star. And while it is generally a mistake to speak of a poem’s or a story’s meaning or moral – as if either one can be reduced to a simple declarative statement as at the end of a fable – I would venture to say that the aspect of struggle is the more dominant of what we still might call this poem’s many-faceted message. As suggested in its last stanza, and particularly the Biblical allusion and last line:
You came home to find me tying another color berry to the rowanberry tree:
Must ignite the orphaned, the stars, the embers glowing
The ceiling belonging to Michelangelo’s Sistine: as in childhood, it’s get up,
your bed on your back.
It’s do or die. (p. 123)
I have been thinking about Lynn Strongin’s poems and wondering how profitably they might be read by high school students. While not for the weaker readers or the least mature, I think very profitably indeed for older ones, at least, perhaps girls more than boys though that is a pity, in particular, boys or girls, those with a certain sensibility to the suffering of others.
Bread of the Angels (http://www.ravennapress.com/books/title.php?tid=10031), lest I pass it by almost entirely, claims no single narrative structure but it does have many commonalities with the other book, including the life struggles toward transcendence of human beings across a wide spectrum. One passage in particular stands out to me as broadening those who fit the category of sympathetic sufferers. It grabs me for its thematic and topical relationship to the concerns that my own past students have written into poems and stories that we have published in our literary magazine The Jolie Rouge, which due to my unanticipated retirement issued its last number in May:
Last night I dreamed
I saw the child who slices herself with a razor
lift her tee-shirt stretching, I saw her scars:
slits under sixteen-year-old breasts uplifted like pears.
There are happier notes from Bread of the Angels that I might close with, but there are none truer to contemporary human experience.