Word For/Word [ Issue 17: Summer, 2010 ] [ Previous ] [ Next ] [ Notes ]

Lynn Strongin

The Crack in the World Thru Which Light Shines

The days shall come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days. – Gospel of St Mark


When I was traveling with the circus in the 70s I loved the South.  So different than my background growing up in Alberta's Rocky Mountains and northern prairies.  It felt like a different planet, not just another country.  Even the insects looked and sounded different (remembering my one and only - and painful - encounter with fire ants and bright scarlet colored wasps in Mississippi).   I remember some of the show folks we traveled the country with, had their origins in the South and were extremely uncomfortable in the Pacific Northwest - even though it was still part of their own country - it felt foreign and strange to them.   Until I had traveled the southern US I had never heard a Canadian accent.  After a year in Dixie, I finally traveled north again and crossed the border in southern Saskatchewan and for the first time I heard the accent everyone had been teasing me about.  But to this day I still tend to develop a bit of southern drawl whenever I drink bourbon. Melody Poirier





Alabama was what I named bisque doll. I was nine. She was one hundred years old and had thus survived the Civil War. Maybe she belonged to some little girl in the north who rocked her back and forth while her daddy was gone fighting the south. Maybe she belonged to some leggy little girl in the south who rocked back on her heels, hugging her doll while her daddy fought the north. “You were born to be torn in half,” Mama shouted as I ran to catch Alabama.


“It behooves you to behave yourself,” my mother raised her voice. I had learned to bite the dust and twisted my toes in it while mother was grieving the dead-long-ago-doll. "All she survived, and now she’s gone.”


I mimicked one of mama’s favorite phrases at junctures of crisis: “We’ve come to a fork in the road,” and turned on my barefoot heel and left the room.  I had given Alabama her name because we were living outside Birmingham for the time being.  It was during some difference of opinion, some dragon fight between Mama and me that Alabama shattered. I covered my mouth with my hands not cry out loud. When I picked her up her beautiful and elegant miniature face was cloven in two: one half held one eye, one the other. When I took her to the bathroom with what I called the crystal window, I shut the door to be private. I knelt on the toilet with the lid down so I could hold Alabama up in the shrewdest light possible. Thus, tried to piece the two halves together like a puzzle of burnt clay, she assumed an odd expression.


When I came forth, I said to Mama “I spoze something marvelous is going to happen.” “Humph” she said. “It isn’t the first time you’re supposing that.


A greenback was on the telephone table. I looked down at the grave, bearded face of Abraham Lincoln telling me things were going to work out right. But they never were okay again. Not between the south and the north. Nor between mother and me and not on your life on Alabama who right in that very moment I married to Abraham. Abe with honesty, the green running thru his face on the five-dollar bill. It was 1947.

My next determination was to see how I could mend Alabama, if ever. I went for the gluepot.


This surgical procedure of my trying to glue together the two halves of a cracked visage was but the first preview of that film I was to observe a million times: her tragedy was the crack in the globe thru whtch light shone. It was a stairwell light dusty, illuming splintered gold wooden rulers. One walked the numerals, breath drawn in as if to blow a balloon. Ringing up a curtain on a drama, at times opaque, at times translucent. In her hands was the chalice. She was one-hundred-years old and we called the thimble she held (waterless, crazed porcelain also) the chalice of Bedlam. Why? When Mama felt she was going crazy in the Alabama light, she’d say she was going to Bedlam. “What’s that?” I asked. “A place. A Hospital in England for the insane.” “An asylum?” I asked, she nodded. Then I asked, “what’s that?” pointing to the thimble with rosebuds which the bisque doll held. “That’s the chalice of Bedlam.”  “A sparrow couldn’t drink from it,” I said. We had a fight and the doll went whirling thru the air. She struck the wooden bedpost shaped like a ball of bread dough One half her head was blown off like heads of children I’d seen in newsreels in the war.  “We must send her to doll hospital,” Mama said. I choked and gulped, I shook my head fiercely till blind sighted with tears, and at last I nodded.  Sent to the doll hospital, she came home with a different face. Her visage was cracked and crazed with tiny fracture veins: she looked both horrified and horrific like a doll who had been in a house that was bombed. It was like when I lost my legs to polio at age twelve. I went into the hospital with legs and came out without them: they were unable to move. The doll whose name I don’t remember has altered with her bashed biscuit-colored head and has lit up my life.


Mama pulled up the window in Alabama. We looked down on a dusty little


Street below. Look at it as if it’s a motion picture,” she said to me. And ever since. Even the night I contracted polio, was a crack in the globe thru which light shone. I have looked at this life as though it were on the silver screen.


I think of mother as the enchanted princess who bore her child in her sleep. The past dusted with a film of pearl. In early childhood I became a city planner of dreams in which nurses bound up civil war fatalities a moment too late they were on the battlefield. They had no option.

The bird who nearly garroted himself in my wheelchair, gave himself no karate chop but flew is brother to the doll who broke.

Mysticism, illness and the South went interlocked. I was torn between mother and father, the north and the south: it was then that I realized in the south strife continues, bandages are being tied (in the forties) in the Civil War of the Heart. A Red Cross nurse leans in the dust but it is too late. It was then that I realized we are all players in the transparent, translucent circus of life. The one who is the clown cries thru smiles, smiles thru tears. Clowns always made me mourn. I was detached cruelly from and very young to traditional ideas of family hence ironically made safe: divorce split the nuclear family of two parents, two children into the odd number three. Polio left me in a ward of children whose unit became the new measure of my existence. An old military installation turned into a rehabilitation tank for stricken children: victims of contagious diseases were lodged here; overflow spinabidifda and the freak case of Hydrocephalism, the girl whose head was too large to be contained in anything but a cart in which she lay for the bed and the one child, a child-Amelia Earhart on whom I secretly fastened my gaze (the passion as clandestine) all were soldiers, victims of a battlefield strewn so thickly one could hardly see the ground. Like my one-hundred-year old porcelain doll that shattered in the spring of my childhood, they all held the invisible chalice to their lips, the chalice of Bedlam.


We rested in a shoebox, which cushioned the nurses’ footfalls: stubborn, fragile, our silhouettes were visible at a certain hour between the wolf and the dog at sunrise and sundown. The Celtic Twilight of the fairies shrouded us as though we were enacting a prefiguring the coffin.


The earth was pink and the sky white. The South was cradle deaths. Eucharist and evidence. The South is a red pepper grinder alongside a battered cookie tin, which has been raided by three generations. Both are on a kitchen sill. The paint is blistered, the panes have cataracts. One looked for the sky to crack and the yolk to run. We needed one another desperately, yet we reached out with fear and trembling. One could die of blood that ran from the prick at the spindle. One hungered for something beyond doorknob biscuits done in gravy. We were girls without insurance. While still young we ate fried chicken and drank gravy. We were both underground voices and lamination colony. We tried one last time to fix the doll’s face: one eye was moved up higher than the other, though, and her mouth had lost its sweet expression. “What do you think?” Mama said. (We had circled the day she went into and came out of the doll hospital in Birmingham. “Not much,” I said, “She has the wrong expression.” “What’s wrong with it?” “She looks mean. She looks as if she has it in for someone. She doesn’t have the sweet expression she had borne before.” “Maybe she got fed up with looking sweet.” “She wouldn’t.” I was haunted by the grotesque; I pressed her bisque brokenness to my washboard flat chest. I liked bad weather. Crews working feverishly to clear snow paths. His southern picture-window weather was without interest to me. I was a drifter, a lover, an outsider. In a way this is an Alabama Ghost Story.


The whole South was invalid, convalescent: a translucent ghost borne on a gurney. It was photographs behind windows, the milk of memory drunk by a thin cast. When girls got on the rag, some rolled up their sanitary napkins under rugs. Joni did and when moving day came her mother rolled back the rug to her horror to find twenty stinking pads, the blood still visible. If you told someone you’d seen a ghost, they would simply nod unblinking.


This was the land of King Biscuit sky. The land where women sat on back porches, even the great southern actress who said “I like taking tea with my chickens. They don’t  talk back. I’m a bit of a theatre bird.”


That cold chalice. It was with me when I made music for the children in the asylum. it was with me that horrific two-hour slot in time when I was dragged into and out of the asylum. Like the cold, an adventures in the world’s frozen place, an immigration and back which alerted the blood in my heart, the rhythms of its muscle.


It was with our daddy while he took our mother to dances at the asylum. This was for diversion. “We’ve gradually become so diverted,” she’d say to me while she was ironing, burning triangular cigarette colored skeletons into whatever white thing she was ironing, “So diverted that by now I probably am a disturbed person.”


Troubled, I thought keeping calm. We’re a performing family. We thirst for curtain call. Keeping cool in the clutch is one this we admire to the hilt.


“You give me the buzz, you must be my honey,” I said to the tall long legged girl in plate-glass who looked back to me, fastening her green eyes upon mine. It was the Deep South. Here Eucharist was broken, epiphany occur but right beside the Alabama Light & Power company. It stood near the river with its reddish dust. It as poor. Ironically this great power stood there. Generators. They were generational passed on from the Mason Grandfathers to the fathers to the sons. It was a male world.


Except for the sweetness. That was from the women. We had the moxie and sipped on our cokes, got high on our first aspirin and coke while they ate their fries and grew obese on pulled pork.


Everyone was a bit of a theatre bird. The painful feeling that nothing happens in the south was relieved by the brilliance of peacocks, those swanked up chickens.


You saw the generators lit up at night with tiny dots of illumination. We called them the fairy lights. The same kind of lights blew and burned in a southern storm over the concrete plant across the river. You could hear the ubiquitous thrum of motors. The night air heavy as a lady of the night redolent with honeysuckle, lilac. Wood dust, too, scented the air. The people who moved were largely circus people, down for the winter to the south: in the surreal filmic air of the south they appeared to be enacting a transparent circus.


The loading dock held crates of shrimp. It was where we kids hung. Watching the hauling in and the iridescent light kept us stoked, and amazed. We never roved far from this feeling. We saw it as the amazing light and it lofted us. Buckets of ice stood nearby. Like those granite quarries I had left behind in New England. In the quarries the ledges filled with snow and ice. These wooden slat boards glistened with beads of salt water. Fish traps had a bayonet glimmer they flashed back like grapeshot.


“Vanilla Log” was the second hand store near the dock. Grandma Faye had unearthed treasure from her attic to fill this store, which stood in a wood fish shack. It held children’s pillow with stripes and with animals, odd egg cups but not her Ancient looking Doll Miss Hickory. Miss Hickory had a face made of hickory nut, with roses painted on her cheeks. She was a one-hundred-tear-old doll, hands clenched in fists before her as if she wanted to picked up and hugged but instead had to put steel into her backbone harness all the power and light in her kingdom. A boy doll, Sampson, stood nearby as if Sampson kept guard over Miss Hickory. His arm broke off at the elbow. The children called him Stump. Grandma Faye’s became an ice cream parlor in summer where old and young alike came, stirring up clouds of dust in their Tin Lizzies eating all flavors ice cream. The kids liked blue ice cream best of all, which wasn’t blueberry but was bubble gum. Sundays people came after church, the little girls in their Mary Janes polished like mirrors, their frills dragged in the dust by now. The grandmothers came smelling of elderberry wine in all their finery. Much of it looked like borrowed finery. (All my rivers flowed on paper: I elaborated so that by age nine put a bar code on paper and I could make a lyric out of it.)


The wallpaper flowers and sugar bowls were there but the figures in the paintings got a wiggle on, began moving. They threw electric shadows and magnetic zeroes. I was filled with amazement. Lofted, stoked by the miracle I said to my mother “I am so filled with exultation.” More often I was mortified. Peacocks dragged about in the dust, those swanked up chickens.


A silky knot of ash blond drawn into a chignon at the beck of my neck I gaped. A glossy purple clot of blackberry ripened in August sun. They baked in August. I wanted everybody’s story. Class storyteller I was too shy to become town narrator but even then I knew that the name of the story was now. It was a very large story. Because now never remains. As soon as you say the word it become then. Becomes gone as you watch fields of cotton boll flash by form the Southern Pacific caboose they become in the past.


Quickern’ you can say Jack Robinson. But just as Bob’s your uncle, sure as the lord made little green apples the fruit over ripens and rot set in. The child wants some sugar with her bedtime kiss but looks up with apprehension.


We kids lived in dirt plots of whitish rose earth. Adults sat fanning themselves behind a flimsy screen door, which rattled like grandpa’s teeth in a glass at night. They rattled like Petunia the pig scuttling their hooves like castanets. Sunday School where girls were taught legs are best friends, always together. Sunday school was over. We’d listened politely to the Hammond B but wanted privately music that got you up out of the pews and dancing. A little emerald-eyed lizard scooted across the church parking lot. I caught him with the comer of my eye. I was called in from the yard by nightfall but it took me a basset moment to respond. Basset hounds are proverbially slow, slow as molasses in January.


I did anagrams. Seventeenth century astronomers transposed findings into Latin anagrams: rearranged letters of a word or phrase to produce a new word or phrase using all of the original letters. Anagrams exit in our language as links. Silent becomes listen; Astronomer becomes Moon Starer, Narcissism becomes Man’s Crisis.


Down the road from the doc was Jackson Hole where we weren’t allowed to go in the dark. At sunset I’d see the butcher’s wife exchange her rubber apron spattered with blood the color of holy ruby for her baking apron. Confectioner’s sugar and jam and rolled clumps of dough clung to that apron.


We girls know about our bodies. We referred to our pocket books, which like our diaries we must keep to ourselves. Our vaginas were these pock books, purses; parachutes hat opened at the right touch our orgasms floating down. I mulled this over as I sat playing cat’s cradle on the candlewick bedspread or watched mother make cherry pies rolling out the dough with a scarred old wooden rolling pin then putting a lattice of pastry in slim strips over the cherries.


The docks were the terminus of town. A mile off freight trains making their southern run from Georgia all the way down into Florida punctuate night with lonesome whistles which pierced the soul and the ear as a fall cam puncture a spinal cord resulting in paralysis. Like a Dutch door, the bottom half stayed closed and the upper part swung open upon a Southern night after a day of unbeatable dust that clogged the lung. In day, one wanted only shelter. My night one longed for touch. Nubile girls with rounding pear breasts, who wore training bras and had perfect cupid bow moths, and peaches and cream complexion lured me with that language ton in their musical voices up and down the scale. I young, still green and wet behind the ears but I was learning how fiction works. “Yours till I’m asking for your autograph at some stage door,” a girl whose name has long since sunk into oblivion wrote in my nine-year-old’s autograph book. One observer of the south who worked a while in the circus wrote me

It felt like a different planet, not just another country.  Even the insects looked and sounded different (remembering my one and only - and painful - encounter with fire ants and bright scarlet colored wasps in Mississippi).   I remember some of the show folks we traveled the country with, had their origins in the South and were extremely uncomfortable in the Pacific Northwest - even though it was still part of their own country - it felt foreign and strange to them After a year in Dixie, I finally traveled north. To this day I still tend to develop a bit of southern drawl whenever I drink bourbon. 




In the incendiary Deep South, the little ice age of hatred had returned. Alabama’s state bird is the wild turkey, her nickname The Heart of Dixie or Yellowhammer State. I had a passion for putting out fires: for cooling down the wrath and sorrow, the repression and rage in our divorced family struck by polio. I loved to watch billowing fire smolder in a small ashes. The state motto is an extinct whale and state nut a pecan. It is a rich land but the home of poor people. It is freshly opened ground but hardly new ground which I return to in my seventies.


I say to that state epitomizing the state of mind which is the new south, you give me a lot of buzz but you’re still my honey. Something heroic like the hillbillies of the Ozarks, a forecast of heroines coming in the south in the women occurred in my time. Something exotic we ate, pork & pickled vegetable soup, sweet potatoes growing on the honey suckle line occurred to, flash-flooded me with vision, ignited my visions like a firestorm.


Like the Enoooswetook drawings of Fox land, Baffin islands, Canada, the polar north ignited my imagination. Here was desperate Canadian tundra. Here were a people composed in a forlorn situation. From northern Scandinavia, across taiga of Siberia to ice bound East Greenland humans have proven themselves capable of enduring. Earth never thaws.


In the sinkhole that is the south, which sure could stand some cheering, in a prison of heat and racism, poetry flourished and transcended the bars of that prison. The garb of Icelander is fur, the garb of the southern stripped pale down into pastel clothing. But this is the powerhouse heavy into cut. The iron claw in the velvet glove.


The northerners had first pointed to the ships asking what great creatures those were. But they were an animal of another ilk. They came from where there was nothing but ice.


The little ice age returned of the Deep South, insupportable wrath. This land never cooled down. There are tortures where people are frozen then broken apart with a manner. These are war crimes, war games. There are torture where people melt with the heat of ignorance and who are ignited by a taper dipped in accelerant. The first I saw in books of the Vikings, the second in day-by-day life, albeit during heightened occasions such as war, illness divorce, the second I saw in the corrugated rooves and water melon juice of the deep south.


Whether where Breer Rabbit exists, or where the ptarmigan sings to the long-tailed duck, the aim of writing is to tell a good story. Homer knew and so did Plato. Herodotus knew. Flannery O’Connor knew how to spin a tale about a one armed bible salesman from the terrors of the worth, just as Nathaniel Hawthorne knew how to spin the yarns of the distaff side, like Hester Prynne, in what amounted to the witchcraft trial a woman was put to with that scarlet letter embroidered, emblazoned on her breast: Adultery. When the sea of heat is smooth as glass, or when the fire burns, to survive there must still be passage: whether in skidoos, or fanning oneself down.


Anagrams. A lifelong passion. It was in Alabama I began doing them.  So were fire and power. It went deep into the inchoate form of my feminism to picture a woman fire fighter.


I realized at last that, divided, born to be torn in half, I stood upon that crack in the earth where the world’s light shines. I realized that glass shearing and jack hammering were the human condition: reparation where there could be none to our lot. Here in Hades, the stage was being set albeit with minimal props: here two years beyond the age of reason, and two before puberty, in those Spanish moss and transcending universal darkness, this girl, this child was parting the curtains.


When I was growing up, there were two types girl: Shirley Temple, and Scout Finch. I was definitely Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.

I realized that all those new vests, and sweaters, scarves and stockings did not a new body make. Olympics are held where snow parks have to be created. Bales of hay, scaffolds, providing steps and landings. What one gets is el Niño; weather that changes in a moment, what one wants is a real mind-bending season. That I would get up north again. For now, I bided my time.


We are always saving wildlife photographers from starving to death, brought redemption in the nick of time when they failed to pack enough provisions. We are, at the same time, always driven, tempted to push our brother off the face of the earth. There is always a Hotel Dieu Grace hospital in which some woman surgeon is performing a mistaken mastectomy.


Anagrams: Alabama spelled Baa-Lamb with only one “b” inserted for the beatitudes, the bestiality of this world, the human condition. I realize that I was beginning to speak in the voice of an old woman my seventieth winter, leaving the capes of childhood behind.


We are always doing two-barrel rolls in an airplane, always knocking at heaven’s door. It behooves us to always live as though we were on the brink of dying. Little children little problems. big children big problems. You need moxie in the South.


I perceived that although construction began early, with dump trucks gouging the earth, their huge shovels outlined in fairy lights, the earth could never be cleansed, rethought: construction was perpetual. Cry eternal.


Far too late workers find a black box from a train collision in Belgium.


I saw indignities against human pride in the way blacks were treated, as I was later to see indignities in the world’s treatment of the disabled. Stump they called the boy with one arm. Now is the name of the story. Here comes Stump. He lost the arm as a daredevil, jumping off a moving freight train. We blamed history. We could not ask for blessing for this blame. There was no way when we were that young to measure the thickness of a spine. It was generational like shycat.


So these tales deal with addiction, forgiveness, prejudgment, incest hinted at and anti-Semitism. Turning back a sheet to rest at night, one fids the blank white reveals a bed redolent of ancestral malaise.


The union won but the Confederate still dominates to an extent in the south. Just as in New England, watches were exonerated but republicanism and superstition still rule with a closed fist. Using hyperbole, one could say that the extreme and north and the extreme south are, as a lover of mine once said in her first experience of Massachusetts, “Your country is a beautiful grave.” In the belles of the South, the schizophrenic behavior of the region with its schisms, one was up against the challenges of chaos and bedlam. In the straight-laced north one was up against the fusion of the backbone, the ossification that is Puritanism.


Extremity, the polarity that marks a strong country. One saw it in straight laced women in New England, one saw it in righteous women in the South, breasts quivering like a partridge in full courtship dress, woman as round as plump as Ms Couch in Fannie Flagg’s masterpiece Fried Green Tomatoes.


These stories move from “Child Revealed” through “Hawkeye View of a Buxom English Teacher weaving back and forth while childhood unrolls its highest drama in three traumas: war, divorce polio. I move on from the Alabama Light & Power Company but its light continues to be shed. The North symbolized by the Boundary Waters with Canada is where I learned to burn the midnight oil living on into my youthful seventies. People joke that I am Peter Pan. Perhaps I exchanged paralysis for perpetual youth. Illness, Mysticism and the south can be one trinity, holy and unholy.


Love between women occurs, most clearly in Sarne & Lee. Middle-aged Lee is a closet case who finds that loving women is too hard work. The smaller feisty Sarne is a marathon word sprinter and would go for broke. She had heard stories from reliable sources that her heroine, Mother Theresa was famous for feeling up nuns in elevators.  If it was true, she was sorry to know about it. Sarne didn't want this bitch to know she'd gotten to Sarne, so she gave her a big smile and said:  "Really?  How do I get on the list?"


It is bitterroot being Jewish. Having polio. Loving a woman in a world where heterosexual love is still the norm. It is being born in 1939 surviving the first decade of the twenty-first century. Bitterroot all the murals which history paints upon the walls and bones of our body.


The last stories in the book deal with a difficult contemporary theme: self-injury. Cutting, or inflicting small-cigarette burns upon the body to beat up on oneself, to feel a pain less than the emotional pain and rejection, which trigger it, self-mutilation is an addiction, which reaches epidemic proportions among adolescent girls in particular.


Alabama broke when I was nine. My biological clock was ticking. We didn’t’ stay long there, on the outskirts of Birmingham, where life was cheap and cheerful if one was poor and happy. Life was austere and sad if one were a person with means. Always, that gaze, mildly admonishing face of Abraham Lincoln looked out at one from the five-dollar bill. Now in my early seventies, I realize that we were indeed at a fork in the road, my tough mama and me the day when Alabama shattered and gave up the ghost. I realize as sell that this small, intense doll head itself burned with energy. She was the Alabama Light & Power Company. Our mother dreamed of being an actress when young. A dead ringer for Merle Oberon, smoking her Camels and wearing her fur collar, I do not doubt that mother wanted a place on what was then the silver screen. While still married, once she ran away from our father. He searched all over and found her at the movies. She was both at a film, and I imagine in her mind, being filmed. In the milky, dreamy space of the big screen, she acted out her astonishing scenes only before those she loved: no doubt, our father (though I never saw these scenes) and for the audience of her two children who were dumfounded. “Too much is going on,” she’d cool a bit “and I can’t get my foot into these sneakers. I have hammertoes. You kids have driven me so hard that I’ve swollen and need to cut a slit in my left sneaker.”




In the final chapter of ALABAMA LIGHT & POWER CO, the writer makes her own peace with a past: once a novitiate of thirteen she has achiever her three score and ten. We form a chorus. None of us makes music alone. We bring two hands together to praise: we bring two hands together to pray. The chalice can never be restored to the one-hundred-year-old doll again. Because the doll is without hands: they have been amputated in her fall. Players in a circus, more often than smiling, we are weeping. These tears are a crack thru which the light of the world shines.Al-a-b-ama the children's chorus of girls echoes. The church which is the Tin Kitchen is down the street.  The whole earth reverberates with the light and power of this song, these multiple voices.  They are heart-armoring breaking up like ice floes. The curtain on the transparent circus at last rings down on the eerie drama with is honey with a buzz, southern living: Dixie Paramour, and Annabel Jenhomme.The author has made a pilgrimage under various names from morning glory blue jeans and Alabama Light & Power Co to the clear, at times cruel, light of the north where with her Canadian lover she comes out of hiding into an air, cutting, mystically radiant.There in the background are the brown dog, in the sky the black raven. She finds herself Christless in Silentville again.