On the Poetic Prose of María Rosa Lojo and Lynn Strongin

A luminous winter sceneIf I had to describe it in one word I would say: luminous, in all the word’s senses.

1. Emitting light, especially self-generated. 2. Full of light; illuminated. 3a. Easily comprehended; clear. b. Enlightened and intelligent; inspiring. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)

Both María Rosa Lojo and Lynn Strongin are, first and foremost, poets, and their prose is distinctly marked with their poet’s sensibility.

The poet / novelist in Buenos Aires

María Rosa in Buenos Aires, 2005

Let me give a couple of examples, first, from María Rosa’s work. It so happens that the style of poetry she discovered in her young adulthood is what is known as “prose poetry,” a form that sometimes merges with a mini-narrative function and might be called “micro-fiction.” I will cite an example of the non-narrative variety, from my translation in the bilingual collection Awaiting the Green Morning (Host Publications, 2008:http://www.hostpublications.com/books/greenmorning.html):

 

Qualities of Winter

awaitingthegreenmorning[1]Winter is round like a walnut and hollow like a crystal planet where furious winds blow. But in its torrid center boil the fruits of sea and earth and the fugitives of tempests come together.

Winter is a house that in its trunks keeps memories of the most ancient love, the warmth of a lap, a voice predating the word – all enclosing the sleeper in their balls of silk.

The bodies of winter become linked in profound kinships, weave into each other like blankets to provide shelter, light up like candles in order to guide whoever stumbles in his silence, seeking an embrace.

Now, from my translation of her novel Passionate Nomads (Aliform Publishing, 2011:http://www.aliformgroup.com/display.php?code=nomads), a brief transitional chapter in the short transitional section before the culminating chapters of its most eventful final part:

I

Promises of winter.

            Winter, always a little colder in our Western suburb than in the exacerbated capital (where bodies seemed to operate at greater speed and higher temperatures), was drawing near to Buenos Aires.

Very early in the mornings a soft mist covered the lowest reach of things. A couple feet off the ground life wriggled along in a delicate confusion of directions and shapes. Merlin and I were reminded of the Galician forest. The little creatures of the shady wonderland, the hidden stream, and the aromatic bark leapt up in our memory with the sweet melancholic joy of past times when one was happy.

passionate_nomads[1] (2)Winter brought nostalgia for lost homes: the hearth of Miranda with its chestnuts roasted beneath hot coals, the rich fragrance of baskets filled with walnuts, the cellars in stone houses from which good wine emerges, the dense dark wine sweetened with sugar, honey and spices, with its scent of resin and imprisoned light encircled by fire to warm the heart, and which we drank slowly.

Winter makes all the earth’s gifts more precious (Lucio sighed, he too remembering): gentle breaths of lavendar-scented sheets heated with warming-pans, the sewing room of Augustina Rosas, with its chimney lit for the magical time of visitors with the onset of night.

The aroma of locro, with its corn and pepper, intermingled with that of the thick puchero with its salt pork and bay leaf; lentils and carbonadas, fried pastelillos and thin pancakes with warm dulce de leche spilling over their sputtering surfaces, suddenly filled the house with a tumult of old flavors delectably reborn. …

The passage goes on for two more paragraphs, each of increasing length, but the above-cited gives a sufficient likeness and a sufficient distinction between the prose poem and the novelistic narrative (I am reminded of the elegant and meditative prose of Proust’s Swann’s Way, which I am presently reading in the new translation by Lydia Davis; it and the six volumes that still remain, all begun in a cup of tea and in the taste of a tea-soaked piece of a petite madeleine, a small scallop-shaped pastry).

For two more typically narrative (though no less poetic) passages from Passionate Nomads see my postings of October 8, 2011 and November 4, 2012.

***

poet Lynn Strongin
Lynn Strongin

Let me turn, now, to Lynn’s work; I am fresh from a reading of her novel Nikko’s Child (Conflux Press, 2008:http://www.confluxpress.com/trade-books-3.html). At center of this exquisitely woven prose novel – I say “prose novel” to contrast it from Orphan Thorns, her novel in verse that I reviewed on August 4, 2012 — is a fourteen-year-old girl who has started cutting herself after giving up, due to puberty and a growth spurt that has thrown her off balance, her nascent and promising career as a gymnast. More than the story of a girl amidst the anguish of adolescence, Nikko’s Child is the deeply poignant story of Penelope’s (Nell’s) family’s parallel struggle for understanding and healing as their individual and collective lives are turned upside down by the fear of losing adopted daughter and sister.

The tale is given nuance and depth by the family’s marginal status in a Tennessee town “with the poor white dirt and the shack houses and the whiff of half-hearted integration” and “vestiges of racial tension” where they have recently come and do not seem to belong: Nell, the first of two adopted children after the first child who is not adopted: tall, athletic, literary-minded, and apparently “normal” older brother Josh, is a black or “mulatto” girl; the youngest child, Emmanuel (Manny, or Manuelito) or “God With Us,” is a psychically gifted but physically deformed boy whose days are numbered, as the story’s principal narrator (an aunt who still lives up north) keeps reminding us.

Indeed, yet further nuance is added by the fact that the family is at least nominally Jewish (the mother, Leta, by birth Catholic) and by Aunt Myra’s association with a Hungarian woman and Jewish exile named Sabine, to whom she lyrically narrates what is happening with her brother Nikko’s (by birth Peter’s) troubled child. Not to mention the late appearance of a girl in a wheel chair, three years younger than Nell, whom Nell begins to coach to be a champion in the national Special Olympics. It is through this fortuitous association that Nell begins to redeem herself and work out the psychic anguish that has led to her self-hurting behavior.

young Lynn Strongin

The poet as a young woman

With this background I can turn to Lynn’s poetic and prose texts themselves. Early in Nikko’s Child Myra, with her own Jewish name and connections through her childhood to Irish nuns, meditating on questions of loss and death, pictures one of those Sisters “and also a very different people in the forefront of my mind this evening. Steeped in a cloud of different emotion, a different shadow,” she continues, “the people in northern Japan, where two days ago the worst nuclear accident in their history occurred: Two workers mixed too much uranium with another element, starting a nuclear fission. The workers saw a blue flash. Immediately after, the three injured workers appeared in headlines being carried out on stretchers, wrapped in blankets, their bodies covered with plastic: They appeared like spacemen, or those babies born without immune systems who have to live in plastic domes. Bubble babies. A light rain falling in Japan complicated the problem this morning, conducting radioactivity farther than dry air would have done.”

Four years later, in Orphan Thorns, that passage is echoed in a snatch of verse that I cited in that earlier review:

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.

The image of a girl cutting herself is likewise echoed in Bread of the Angels, in a passage cited in the same review:

Last night I dreamed

I saw the child who slices herself with a razor

lift her tee-shirt stretching, I saw her scars:

twenty

odd

slits under sixteen-year-old breasts uplifted like pears.

In Nikko’s Child, in a particularly moving chapter in which Myra’s voice merges with Leta’s, we taste the luminous suffering of a mother:

… To see my child’s blood where it does not belong, on scraps of Kleenex balled up in the kitchen hamper, on washcloths, all that I’m made of, all that I am rebels against this act. Yet I must keep calm. Not hide all Nikko’s razors, not scan all bath and kitchen closets for sharp pointed objects, for people have been known to use even plastic spoons, so intent on getting their wounds out there in the open. I have read that people count each mark as a victory. Over what?

Nikko's Child (2)Saturday night, Tennessee. Alone in the house, choosing as always the kitchen, I close my eyes and see each pointed object I kept from her when she was two, crawling. Nikko and I used to visit friends, first getting on all fours like dogs to examine the carpet, the corners of rooms, for thumb tacks gone missing, for straight pins, for a staple pulled loose. We were fanatic about the thing. Then teaching her to feed herself with a spoon, how careful we were of her eyes, of her finding her mouth, like all young children, babies still guiding the plastic fork mistakenly taken toward an eye, we caught our breath. We did too with Josh, our first. Then there were her first cuts. Her scuffed knees that bled and pained me, like Joshua’s, her splinters drawn with much crying, her black-and-blue marks, and her bangs. The time a boy threw a pointed block at her head when she was four and the school nurse phoned me: In frenzy, I drove down. We were in Long Branch, New Jersey then. It was before Pennsylvania when life took the odd turn of our adopting Manuelito. Why is he so cheerful? Our jiminy cricket, always perking things up on a dark day? Sometimes I think his birth defect makes him cheerful: He knows the shadows from reality.

When I saw blood congealed on Nell’s scalp I wanted to cry. She herself seemed in no pain. I wanted to take her home, but she said, “Mom, let me stay.” I wondered at her ability to bear such pain. Now, when she cuts herself, delicately, fragilely, almost artistically, these oddly unreal dislocated days, is her dilemma that she has ceased to feel pain? Or merely that the physical pain is so much less than the emotional pain?

If the past is dust, as our psychologist claimed, it is clearly dust that shines.

That shines as does her luminous poetic prose; not unlike María Rosa’s which makes of winter a shining place of warmth and memories, the memory of taste and smell made incarnate like the inevitable suffering and joy of mother and child.

Nikko’s Child is readable and engaging, poignant and inspiring, highly recommended. As, of course, full of enlightenment and adventure, is Passionate Nomads, which if you haven’t already I hope you will buy – and shout the word of it from your proverbial housetops.

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