Slow Dark Film, by Lynn Strongin
Review by Risa Denenberg
I’ve been a fan of Lynn Strongin’s work since 2014 when she submitted a manuscript to my press, Headmistress Press. I immediately fell in love with her poetry. In fact, Headmistress has published two of her poetry collections: The Burn Poems in 2015 and A Bracelet of Honeybees in 2016. So I was interested in reading her newly released chapbook, Slow Dark Film (right hand pointing, 2021). I’m happy to report that it has the same powerful, idiosyncratic, playful language and fascinating narrative that is found in the poetry and prose she has been publishing for decades.
Strongin’s work is often autobiographical, ranging from childhood when she was hospitalized with polio, to in-between years when she traveled extensively, and on to present day, where she suffers the debilitating late effects polio. Similar to other collections, Slow Dark Film follows a narrative line comprised of the poet’s lived experience. Also similar to other works, her lesbian lover is right by her side.
In the first poem, “LUMINOUS,” Strongin provides a map of the territory the reader is entering, when she reports, “Asylum, forever mine.” This is an artifact persistently embedded in the poems.
The slow dark film of the title is both a recollection from childhood and a gauzy scrim that forms a backdrop through which the poet’s story is shaded. The memory is of the “slow dark painterly-grained film[s]” that were shown to “Children twelve & under” who were “Wheeled in/ to our asylum.” Years exist in this metaphor of so few words—the excruciatingly slow movement of time and the bleak darkness of her surroundings.
The charm in the writing is how Strongin can travel from asylum to Elysium using her vivid imagination and agility with language. In the poem, “IT INTERRUPTS,” Elysium is paradise, but also a harbinger of death:
Stamen & pistil, flowering,
The earth is procreation:
Creation. In a cradle, the bee cups honey
The longed for, the filmed over, a deep caress
The last word is always loneliness.
Images—such as the dark film—repeat throughout these poems, conferring a dream-like effect. In “YOUR WORDS,” there is an image of a ladder which repeats in later poems:
I am going through a life-change
that has ladders of grieving
I think of the biblical story of Jacob’s ladder when I read this, one of so many associations Strongin’s words invite me to imagine. In “I KNEW I WAS,” the ladder reappears:
I comfort myself
Teeth-eaten by wind
Like raggy lace. These ladders, they do not lead
Out of the flesh.
Another repeated narrative is found in poems addressed to “YOU”—the delicately unnamed lover, as seen in “WHAT IS THIS”:
Many tiny upheavals in our lives
Have made them remote: yet what is this, you
coming toward me with an embrace lowered eyes,
sorrowing El Greco face?
Or this, in “GHOST OF DAWN”: “By the time you bathe me/ Morning’s gone.”
In Slow Dark Film there are many weighty metaphors of illness and death, such as in “DEFEAT”:
I make my dark nest,
I lay my bright dress
And in the last poem in the book, Strongin returns to the original image of the film:
IF LIFE is a sadness that unspools, a slow dark grain
My rising up is my bending
Down in a dancer’s position.
Slow Dark Film unspools a quiet narrative, leaving me with much to wrestle with, and reminding me of the Dickinson poem, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.”
Lynn Strongin’s homeland is America. Her adopted country Canada. She has twelve books, work in over forty anthologies, and has been nominated for a Lambda Award and the Pulitzer Prize in literature.
Title: Slow Dark Film
Author: Lynn Strongin
Publisher: right hand pointing, 2021
Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic Peninsula where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press and the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online. Recent publications include slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018), and Posthuman, finalist for the 2020 Floating Bridge Chapbook Prize.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.