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

Hugh Fox

"The Turmoil and Chaos from Which All Life is Born:" An Overview of Lynn Strongin's Work

Shine / O my Soul



Single-themed, detailed poems can become tedious, like someone on a Boston area subway giving you the run-down on their life. Strongin avoids that. She voices a series of related  (at the same time unrelated) events all flowing continuously through one poem. Take “New Rochelle (5 whistle stops beyond Manhattan),” in The Medici Girls (2009) for example. It begins rather humbly with Strongin talking about her father taking the New Rochelle commuter train every evening: “Father took it every evening, newspaper before him, cigarette in long graceful hand....”But suddenly the father’s hand takes on new dimensions “spinning slowly as a mill waterwheel / Millstone old,” and before you know it she’s meditating on the history of the town itself, imagining it made of black-green construction paper: “Funny to think that you saw that small town of black-green construction paper/elms where I grew up was stricken long ago back in the last century....” She tosses in a little parenthetical bit “(I’ll work out my problems in privacy / & meet you at the fair:/the air will be spare.”) which might be her talking, her father talking, someone else on the train talking. And then back a sketch-description of the city itself: “The underlit swamp stands apart from the turn-of-century Presbyterian Church/In the town square. / At the rail station, nearby/The obliquely-lighted mortuary/ like gas men in man-holes at work there/Glares with a flare.”

All of this is within the confines of the first part of a three-part poem. The train, her father, the town, a little parenthetical whisper, more town-history, the irony being that the vivid little powerfully-imagined fragments really get to you, and it’s not work on a page at all, but a little magical drop into the fragmentary quality of  reality.


Part II of the poem is a description of Strongin’s drunk black nanny getting a call from her son in prison and sticking Lynn and her kid sister in a taxi, going down to the jail near the train station. Not quite as fragmented, but N.B. how she underlines the nanny’s blackness: “our black Nanny from down South doth bring /k id sister & me, bundled in a taxi....” taking a “long black drive / Down to the jail near the New Rochelle train station. / The Iron Horse belched snow-white steam..../New Rochelle a year or two after the close of the Second World War.” (pp.14-15).


The black Nanny doesn’t just bring them down to the jail, but doth bring them down. Why doth? Just a subtle little touch that spells out historicity.

Part III leaps totally into Outer / Inner Space as New Rochelle becomes an almost hallucinatory backdrop for Strongin’s description of the polio attack that has affected her life. Throw back-sequences out the window and move directly into a tortured childhood consciousness that turn everything into chaos. So masterfully drawn that we really end up seeing it all through her eyes / feelings: “Seeing New Rochelle by train was one thing / Seeing it flat on my back from an ambulance window another pair of sleeves/Blown, sewn of liquid oxygen/Not to be cut on a girl’s clothes dummy, some mannequin with beige plastic skin/July 1, 1951/When the world spun on its axis like a copper penny / Black snake of woodland lake writhing / Gold transfused by an intravenous into coal / Transformed, Cinderella at ball/Music of the globe organum: out of the year in hell/Dust & grime like hurt hawks, raptors near ruin, shine/O my soul.” (iii, p.15).


What an unexpected, captivating series of associations: spinning copper pennies, black snakes, coal transformed into coal, the earth transformed into music (organum), feeling surrounded by hawks/birds of prey (raptors)...and then a final uplift into hope: “...shine/O my soul.”


So we get her personal (father-centered) past, a mini-history of New Rochelle, and then move into the hellish center of Strongin’s first battle with polio. Even the use of slightly exotic words like “organum” and “raptors” adds another dimension of seriousness to the vision. The message here is to avoid the commonplace, the ordinary, the little plot-tale, turn all into a vivid melange of memory that invites the reader into the poet’s mind.


The superficial, the obvious is the adversary: imagery draws you into the reality of the work as imagery can alone. Even the last line here....for the innocent/un-knowing, they may think that the “shine / O my soul” is simply something spontaneous, clear-flowing. But the fact is that it is an echo of the Hebrew song (“L’Cha Dodi”) to the Sabbath as some sort of female incarnation, not a goddess, of course, but an attempt to turn the sacred day into a someone: “Hitor’ri, hitor’ri, ki va oreich, kumi ori / Awake, awake your light has come.”


In a recent e-mail to me, after reading what I’m writing about her, Strongin let loose a very revealing fact vis a vis her whole psycho-techno approach to writing: “You make me aware of what I am doing where I only do it instinctively.”  (April 11, 2010).


The fact is that Strongin is almost full-time totally immersed, immersed, immersed in the arts. Books, films, religious services, all the arts enter into herpsyche and become part of her. Hence, when she writes, true enough it is “instinctive,” but instincts emerging from the art-world that exists inside her.


Take a poem like “Summer Streets Were Arterial” in Canzoni, The Fiery &The Ethereal (2009) : “Venus was dawn/Bled bare/Watch the boy overturn the El Train/Disturbed / The film unsurpassed in its day./Grandfather trim as an oyster/Dying in the Cossack country never but Hollywood/Death after Brooklyn/Flatbush might have well been Athens/Limping away from burnt plantations/ Armageddons of fears, sleepless nights, compensations/Which weren’t compensations/But tin/ A blanket stretcher bears him away from copious shadows,/ O Clementine, you were a miner’s daughter, a forty-niner/But never mine/Tape the vein / Get blood redder than river-run.” (p.35).


Who, for example, is the miner’s daughter, a forty-niner? Clementine who?


It’s not enough to just go back to the song “My Darling Clementine,” although that’s where you’ll find the forty-niner miner: “In a cavern, in a canyon, / Excavating for a mind, dwelt a miner forty-niner/ And his daughter -- Clementine. The door opens, not just into the song, but John Ford’s film of the same name, My Darling Clementine. But still there are all sorts of ambiguities and question marks him. Who is the grandfather dying in Hollywood, Old Man Clayton in My Daring Clementine? A part played by Walter Brennen, originally from Massachusetts, who died, not in Hollywood, but Oxnard. A bit of poetic license here, but, after all, the whole poem isn’t emerging from filmography or biography, but the film and song entering Strongin’s poetic soul and then being transformed into an entirely new vision.


Strongin transforms all things into her own art. That being said, there are times when she’s almost purely reportorial autobiographical, nearly Bukowskian, telling it the way it is. Two poles exist in her world: a dream-like transformations of data, and a succinct, reportorial re-creation of the everyday: “The old room in Manhattan was not ours/It belongs to Emotion: Cobalts, sepias, mysteries as deep as /the Middle Ages swirling about our three heads in a painting: Mother, /sister, and me:/ violin against violence of maternal depression. /Unison applause at Yiddish cultural society/Sister stood back to the wall at first blood. /Singing on the way out to Brooklyn/we were silent on the way home. The voice hardly carried thru fog  / Mother kept her nose out of gossip going round/Mother unleashed her sorrow in anger/”If only you’d never been born”/ I used a midnight telescope wrong end/to miniaturize it/diamond/cutting bone/shone.” (“The Old Room in Manhattan Was Not Ours,” Wyves of the Fire Dye, p.73)  Interesting, n’est pas that although we are playing reportorial here, that we begin with a painting and end with a telescope turned around, not to see distance, but closeness. The arts and the everyday mixed together again, and a confession that she was always in a fashion reminiscent of Freud, studying things in their minute closeness. And it tells you a lot about the why’s behind Strongin’s total immersion in the arts. Polio, yes, but more than that, her mother’s personal rejection, “If only you’d never been born.”


The poet’s mind is like a giant quarry filled with endless jewels, and the further down you dig, the more gems you find, the “real” turned into symbolic infinites: “When my mother had me, fright took her breath away:/I broke from her body, /In my third year, it darkened, my nursery// Big as a sheep/or tugboat’s smoke-cloud/Upon sky. //Then it began slowly happening to me:/That my mind had a great ability/To remember everything//Down to the tiny, camera rooms/Developing/All things: //The language of the jewel began to gleam. /When I came in contact with other children/I felt the immense loneliness of creation./Small at first/It had grown larger, larger like a whale/Swallowing me, eyes & all.//My nighttime terrors/Gulped the whole room/Down.//Up I came/Into the ordinary/Grey life, I could not impress on them, the other children/The dazzle of being: / My loss/Shone round: I could touch it with both hands.” (“The Fright of Having a Child,”pp.56-57, Barn Falling Down, A Winter Lens, 2010).


We begin here with the everydayness of a frightening childbirth.


Strongin herself is  aware of her own creative dimensions, an ability of “remembering everything//Down to the tiny, camera rooms / Developing All things.” Interesting, n’est pas, the linking up with “camera rooms,” the sense of not merely abstractly remembering, but remembering with photographic vividness. And she slowly becomes aware of her special gifts, the fact that she cannot impress on the other children the magic that she full-time sees in the world around her. She’s very aware of being a creatrix tuned in on “the dazzle of being” that no one else around her can tune in. Then, frighteningly, her vision disappears, bursts like a bubble and disappears...only like a full moon that vanishes for a while creates a period of darkness, but then begins again. So she goes through revelatory cycles, on, off, and then full moon on again. We’re talking about Realism versus Surrealism here, aren’t we, reportorial frankness versus the visionary, the two polar opposites in the Strongin psyche.


There’s never just a simple here-it-is now, but always a multi-dimentionalized Weltanschauung / world-view that turns the everyday into all-time, all-culture: “I see things/Power over death & loss/Unfathomable bodies of art, writing, lives of others/Structured:/ How can we live out of our skin where dragons let down their scales/& are bathing/In waters fine as skin? / How can you go for me to the wedding?/The surf line of the 21st /Century had come/I knew to live out of my bunkers, out of bonds/ With dignity, passion/To reassemble lives/Though the marriage didn’t take / Though paralysis (how defined?) is fate. Greer Garson in old, flat film visits children with Infantile paralysis/ With seventy-two new cases of infantile paralysis reported yesterday and/twenty-three deaths in the forty-eight hours ended at noon yesterday, / Health Commissioner Emerson yesterday afternoon definitely and/drastically extended his efforts to prevent the spread of the disease. / I like the color of avocado, it’s such a muted green, like the color of some delicious pond scum, or lake with too many ducks and geese turned green/with algae-bloom, pentimento, old dream.” (“With Intoxicating Clarity,” p.54, Cobalt Horse, 2009).


The core here is really Strongin’s life-long battle with polio, (and its opposite ecstasy, a hard won joy rising above the fact) and the minute she begins to meditate on this battle, here come the films, Greer Garson in Strange Lady in Town, and then the evening news about infantile paralysis statistics, all within Strongin’s visionary ability to universalize the individual and particular. As she notes at the beginning of “With Intoxicating Clarity,” she sees things contextualized in demanding, unfathomable “bodies of art, writing, lives of others.” Her own visionary powers, yes, but always enriched in a larger cultural context, which adds immensely to the power and universality of her work. No just confessional/personal, but a ride through cultural history.


There is a sudden break at the end, as we’re moved away from polio in its socio-political (Health Commision) context and suddenly we’re internalized again, back to interior aesthetics, a fascinating tying together of avocado green with pond scum green, and then ducks and geese turned green with algae-bloom which, she points out isn’t photographic/realistic, but a pentimento, first draft, original sketch, “old dream.” With perhaps a sideglance reference to playwright Lilian Hellman’s graphic autobiography, Pentimento.


Whole hidden graveyards exist but imaginatio leads one into long halls of bibliographic-cultural referencing.


The scaleless dragon reference? Beowulf, King Arthur’s Life of Euflamm, Fafner....? You tell me!


 I’m not saying that Strongin is an Internet Search labyrinth of What’s Going On, but, on the contrary, she’s a guide that takes you through historicized personal emotions that you can not only relate to but see in larger cultural contexts: “Crutches/swung me along/over Montreal cobbles, bread-stones, egg-stone walls/sidewalks/into concert halls  rarely moving/ up the stairs, backwards, of the music academy: blond wood which drove splinters into girlskin:/then aluminum rubber handholds/pads under the arms so they wouldn’t rub holes window/in my blouses/still they wore all fabrics thin/including my torso:/my arms which had held trees/knobs of wood/with rapture/now developes wings as wide as an oarsman.” (“Crutches,” p.43, Cape Seventy, 2008).


What we have here is perhaps the single most personal poem that Strongin has ever written, a description of polio  attacking her as a child, her still being able to use crutches which caused an unexpected muscularization of her arms which she then compares to an oarsman’s wing-like arms. But don’t be fooled into thinking we’re into the suface, the obvious, because there is a whole implied message here that the polio itself, although it hampered her body, in a sense freed her spirit / mind.  If she hadn’t gotten paralyzed would she ever have so totally gotten involved with such a thorough immersion in the arts?


 This realistic bent comes out most strongly in her novel Nikko’s Child (2008), which in many respects is a fictional retelling of her own family life which is most vividly portrayed as poetry in Wyves of the Fire Dye.  Strongin herself coping with paralysis, is very vividly portrayed (as Anthea) in the novel, but she’s a little sneaky and round-about here in giving the final message that suffering (polio) creates vision (her life as a writer): “magic sucked up, seemed lost to the eyes of men, it was simply the pitch-black pitch-blind that came before the burst of light. It proved an endurance test, a call to rise igh like the Cliffs of Moher, wich also drop drastically, plunging into the turmoil and chaos from which all life is born.” (p.48).

 So Strongin here,  unlike her modus operandi in her poetry, isn’t  autobiographical She steps out of author-centrism and lets the other characters in the novel express their vision that personal disaster (Strongin’s own paralysis), instead of being a totally negative experience, is the trigger for a burst of creative life / light. Turmoil and chaos give birth to all life, which is Strongin’s way of saying that her own creativity emerged from all the agonies she had to go through before her vision was finally born and developed her into perhaps the most aesthetically rewarding and enriching poet on the scene today.