Tag Archives: Lynn Strongin

GLEANINGS (Henry James on “Mr. Whitman”; new work by Lynn Strongin; a memoir by Joanna Foreman; audio books of Danish poetry, tr. Michael Goldman)

150th_issue_cover_otu_img[1]1. Received yesterday morning the April edition of the usually weekly magazine The Nation, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary with this 268-page anthology of some new but mostly historical material. In my initial browsing I came upon a November 16, 1865 review of Walt Whitman’s book Drum-Taps (one fragment, now, along with Song of Myself and much else, of his ever-evolving masterpiece Leaves of Grass). The reviewer is Henry James.

This is where I confess that I have never read anything by Henry James, though I am familiar with Henry’s brother William through The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, Louis Menand’s book about the American Pragmatists. Henry, according to The Oxford Companion to English Literature, “was a regular contributor of reviews and short stories to American periodicals” from 1865 on, so this review would have been one of his first. Some of his novels (like Portrait of a Lady, 1881) are “chiefly concerned with the impact of the older civilization of Europe on American life”; and in others, more specifically English in setting and content, “he analysed English character with extreme subtlety, verging at times on obscurity.”

I stop on this background on the reviewer for what it might explain of his negative take on Whitman, a less disciplined and mannered writer working in a distinctly American style: a new kind of poetry – ecstatic, ebulient, rough around the edges – that quite deliberately ran away from its European predecessors.

“Mr. Whitman,” writes James, “prides himself especially on the substance – the life – of his poetry. It may be rough, it may be grim, it may be clumsy – such we take to be the author’s argument – but it is sincere, it is sublime, it appeals to the soul of man, it is the voice of a people.”

In James’s view, Whitman’s poetry is quite simply “an offense against art,” and James has some specific advice with regard to it: “To become adopted as a national poet, it is not enough to discard everything in particular and to accept everything in general, to amass crudity upon crudity, to discharge the undigested contents of your blotting-book into the lap of the public. You must respect the public you address, for it has tastes, if you have not.”

image097[1]In the retrospect of 150 years, that dismissal might well strike one as a tad snobbish, but at least James has his standards. The general American public, in any case, from northern to southern hemisphere, seems to have had a different view of things – or perhaps just a different understanding of artistic taste. Be that as it may, Whitman is honored and imitated perhaps more than any American poet before or since. His chief imitator would have to be Carl Sandburg, who wrote no less ecstatically, in free and ranging verse, of his rough-and-tumble Chicago. And who, like Whitman, was a great admirer (and in Sandburg’s case, biographer) of Abraham Lincoln.

The poems that immediately follow Drum-Taps, entitled Memories of President Lincoln, include the much-anthologized “O Captain! My Captain!” This elegantly crafted poem, which I recall teaching to my eighth-grade English students, is surely proof that Whitman could write a perfectly disciplined poem if he chose to.

As for Song of Myself, while the poet does seem to go overboard from time to time, I have come to find it quite admirable in the sheer boldness of its scope. And where at times Whitman may seem a bit full of himself, possessed of boundless, perhaps excessive self-regard, it is at least partly because of the inclusiveness of his usage of the pronoun myself, which intends to include everyone. If perhaps not so much the more elitist, Europe-gazing Henry James.

The individual poems in Drum-Taps were unknown to me before a couple of years ago, more or less, when I finally got around to wading through the immense entirety of Leaves of Grass. I have to say that it particularly moved me. In part because for the first time, it seemed to me, the poet’s seemingly boundless optimism was brought to its knees, overwhelmed by the horrors of an internecine war whose wounds, this century and a half later, are still not completely acknowledged, let alone healed. And, in the face of this day’s apparently endless international “war on terror,” I needed him to acknowledge the limits of optimism.

That impression is perhaps most clearly expressed in the following short poem, which I cite in its entirety:

 Year that trembled and reel’d beneath me!

Your summer wind was warm enough, yet the air I breathed froze me,

A thick gloom fell through the sunshine and darken’d me,

Must I change my triumphant songs? said I to myself,

Must I learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled?

And sullen hymns of defeat?

It seems to me that our political discourse, of late, could stand a dose of this modesty. Before the present drum-beats to war with Iran turn the whole region, and perhaps the world, into a conflagration that is bound to decisively give the lie to all our exceptionalist triumphalism.

2. Have been acquainted with Lynn Strongin, strictly by long distance, since editing some of her poems during my year as managing editor of the online journal New Works Review. She has an extensive body of work since the Sixties and seems to have no intention of slowing down in her own seventies, having two new books (one just published, the other forthcoming) in 2015.

As she has herself pointed out, Strongin has been exploring essentially the same subject and themes for all these years, over and over and yet never the same: every poem, every particular narrative, seems completely fresh and original despite the familiarity. And by no means less skillful than earlier work.

Lynn Strongin as a childMost evident in all her work is her experience as a child victim of polio, which left her in a wheelchair but did nothing to inhibit her intellectual and artistic adventuring. This infuses her work with a particular sensitivity to young people of any day, whatever the specific troubles physical or emotional that sometimes isolate them. Additional themes that resurface in her work include the menace of the Holocaust and other forms of marginalization and prejudice manifest variously in our shared human experience.

In a sense, one might say, her concerns are at once universal and unifying, touching on the world of nature as well as on the varieties of human experience. I especially remember some moving passages, in previous work, on the recent nuclear disaster in Japan, connected as that inevitably is to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to nuclear talks today between Iran and much of the developed world, to traumas both physical and spiritual from the Middle East to urban and rural North America.

None of which is to say that her work is oppressively dark or depressing, quite the contrary. Rather it seems to burst with light and possibility. Her voice is distinct and wholly original. One might say that her words shimmer.

The following radiant poem (I love the closing image!) is from The Burn Poems, just published in time for International Women’s Day on March 18, by Headmistress Press (Sequim, Washington) which specializes in publishing chapbooks by lesbian writers:

Were those sorrowful times

Back on Cook Street?

Did it all melt down to kitchen?

That galley that hung

Me with gin?

Why should those times be more sorrowful than these? Ruined cities always were in my spine:

Fort Mason. Fort Saint John. Fort Spaceman.

To a child it was cruel. To be a woman? There are no words:

Instead I trap

Momentarily

Cup a bird in hand

And let my tears bathe him. 

The lyric novel, Fabrytius’ Chylde (Albuquerque, New Mexico: Casa de Snapdragon), forthcoming later this year, has the feel of an extended prose poem, its narrative comes forth in shimmering blasts that allow the story to emerge slowly, with repetitions of phrase and image that help reinforce it. At slightly over a hundred words, it begs to be read at least twice: once straight through to get the feel of it, and again lingeringly to take it all in more completely.

The title alludes to a 17th-century painting by Carel Pietersz Fabritius, “Rembrandt’s most famous pupil,” with whose subject (the painter’s daughter) this 21st-century narrator self-identifies. She is an older woman, looking back on a lesbian relationship of some fifty years. The painting is The Goldfinch (1654). The following passage, from the beginning of chapter one, helps to set the stage:

This is the story of Velvet and Angel. Velvet was the name given me when Velma-Sue was outgrown, just as Angelique, with whom I fell in love, became Angel, and these names remained ours for life. If I was a Dutch painter’s dream of a girl, Angel was a burly, Roman woman with brogue shoes, a broad-muscled soldier. Her years as instructor had developed her biceps. Her crop of chestnut hair, bangs glistening as though painted with thick oil paints made her resemble a small woman, Roman soldier who fought on burning bridges and canals by sun, lit like candle. She was a delicious woman, Hercules.

the-know-it-all-girl-joanna-foreman-sm[1]3. Recently joined, for support and companionship, the Southern Indiana Writers group, which meets occasionally in Indiana’s original frontier capital of Corydon, at about an hour’s drive from my Indiana home in Tell City. As a former Mormon missionary in South America, no longer practicing the faith but by no means hostile to it, I was interested to read group member Joanna Foreman’s The Know-It-All Girl: A memoir of a former Jehovah’s Witness. (2013. Madison, Indiana: Hydra Publications)

Our experiences have been very different, though both of us have turned against the patriarchal and doctrinal certainties of our former faiths. In her case, I think, the experience was on the whole more restrictive, mine less so given the existence within Mormonism of a distinctly more liberal and expansive wing in opposition or counterpoint to the anti-intellectual wing that, at least in my particular experience, came to suck the original joy from Sunday worship and daily practice. Some of that, both the positive and the negative, is at play in my new Young Adult novel, tentatively called Original Sins and still looking for a home, whose lead protagonist is a Mormon girl (as opposed to her classmates who are not Mormon) with a dilemma (what to do if her boyfriend turns out to really be gay). And who tries to solve the dilemma by drawing some risky lessons from the Mormon version of the Adam and Eve narrative. But that’s a whole other story, which I don’t need to get into just now.

Joanna’s narrative, in any case, is an affecting account of spiritual struggle and growth which should have large appeal to anyone who enjoys reading popular biography and memoir. While the Organization, as it is called by its members, became too restrictive a place for Joanna’s adventurous and inquisitive spirit, the story of her relationships within the faith with, in particular, her mother and a dear girlfriend, are for the most part positive. As is the overall thrust of her narrative, which ends in a good place and is related with appropriate and abundant humor. The title alludes to the illusion of sure knowledge that the faithful have through reliance on the church elders or patriarchal leaders: because, whatever question anyone could have, they claimed to know all the answers; so all you had to do was listen and obey.

The following passage, part of a chapter that develops her ultimate relationship with belief and doubt even more fully, I particularly admire:

 Most days, I don’t believe there is a god anymore. Occasionally, I think maybe there is, but for me, He or She or It is not a god who knows our every thought (or even cares what we’re thinking), who will strike a match and torture us forever if we refuse to follow specific, complicated and oftentimes silly rules. When I hold a newborn I believe there must be a god. When I see violent anger and hate among the human race I figure there cannot be a god. I walk outside on a spring day – birds sing and a fresh breeze ruffles my hair – or I witness a glorious sunrise; then I think maybe there is a god. But when I see the insensitive, unnecessary bickering and wars between people of various religions, I truly believe with all my heart that if a god exists, he is involved in the self-serving beliefs of the people only in their imaginations. I confess I want to believe in God, first of all because I followed that comfortable path for nearly half a century; second, I like the feeling of having a higher power watching over me. 

It seems to me that Joanna may be leaning toward the American Transcendentalists’ sense of God in Nature. Aside from Emerson and Thoreau, whom a high-school English teacher taught me to appreciate, I am also thinking of Emily Dickinson whose poetry I am presently reading. She has a Transcendentalist sensibility, anyway; and when Joanna speaks of appreciation being superior to worship, I think she means the same thing as Dickinson does as she re-defines worship: “My period has come for Prayer – / No other Art would do – ” she writes; but several stanzas later, at poem’s end, she has come to a new place:

The Silence condescended –

Creation stopped – for me –

But awed beyond my errand –

I worshipped – did not “pray” –

(poem # 525)

And then there’s this little jewel, one of my favorites (#23) in its utter simplicity:

In the name of the Bee –

And of the Butterfly –

And of the Breeze – Amen!

Benny Andersen

Benny Andersen

4. Finally, in passing, a note from my translator friend Michael Goldman, whose rendering of a poem by Danish poet / lyricist Benny Andersen I re-published here (it originally appeared in the Cincinnati Review) on October 23, 2013. It seems that he has some audio books out with Andersen’s poetry and that of a pair of other Danish poets. If relaxing to someone else reading fine, accessible Danish poetry sounds like something you would enjoy, then here’s your ticket to poetic bliss. I have not listened to these particular tapes, but I have heard Michael read his poems on more than one occasion – in person and online – and can thus assure you of their quality.

Here’s the link:  http://hammerandhorn.net/audiobooks-3/ Happy listening!

And as a bonus, here from Michael’s website is a short essay called “Translation is Like Carpentry” (his day job, by the way, is carpentry), a profound poetic glimpse at the craft of literary translation:

I was out on a snow hike last night,  imagining that a piece of Danish literature is not unlike a Danish house to which only someone fluent in Danish has a key.  As a translator and student of literature I have access  to enter that building and experience it in all its facets.  I perceive the building elements, the blueprint, the intent behind the construction.  And I can reconstruct that house, make a replica, though not an exact twin.  Not every screw and nail will be in precisely the same place.  It could be that the original wood is not available anymore.  But the building will appear and feel the same, inside and out.  It will be the American-English neighbor.  And the English reader can enter with their key and experience the same mood as inside the original house – experience the same rooms, the dimensions, the decor, the usefulness and the whimsy.  It takes an enormous amount of work  to replicate literature, of course, not unlike building a house.  And not just to build it, but also to find people who will come and enter, and stay for a while.

February 20, 2015

(http://hammerandhorn.net/)

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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.

New Publications by Pulitzer-nominated Lynn Strongin

poet Lynn Strongin

Lynn Strongin

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.

Orphan Thorns, by Lynn StronginBoth 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

Unorphaned

By the century that dug the graves.

O for your love.

OOO Compassio                                 Now nurses have entered my life in

droves

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)

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

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

where God

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.

young Lynn Strongin

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.

(p. 33)

And:

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

Menacingly

Piercingly

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, by Lynn StronginBread 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:

twenty

odd

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.