I WAS DISAPPOINTED, OF course, when Simone Muench's new book of poems, Orange Crush, turned out not to be about one of my favorite neo-Fanta beverages. But, I was relieved when I realized it was an homage to one of my favorite R.E.M. songs (I've got my spine . . .).
Muench's Orange Crush isn't about music or carbonation (when is poetry really about either of these things? It's about resilience. It's about how creepy men can be, how strong women can be, and how eradicative history can be.
What makes Orange Crush a bold project is its commitment to ideology. Or, put another way, its devotion to a rhetorical stance, a positionality that is often missing in contemporary American poetry.
In 2008, Horace Engdahl, the secretary of the Nobel prize jury, bitch slapped (I know, right, the worst phrase!) American writing for its insularity. "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl said. "That ignorance is restraining."
Muench bitch slaps that ignorance with two hands and a hammer, and the result is admirable. The book's title takes it name from the notorious "orange girls" of the 1600s. Since most women were not allowed in he theater, girls who wanted to be near the drama of drama, sold oranges (and, in some cases, more) to the kinds of men who buy such things. Muench's poetic project is to reclaim the lost girls, remember the forgotten lives, exhume the buried voices. An epigraph by Kathy Acker prefacing the final section of Orange Crush gets at this desire to resuscitate: "All of us girls have been dead for so long. But we're not going to be anymore."
And so, Muench makes girls live.
To this end, she divides the book into four sections--"Record," "Rehearsal," "Recast" and "Redress"--which are grouped either thematically or formally. For example, "Recast" features a series of prose poems grouped under the heading "Orange Girl Cast" that star the poet's friends. This 13-poem suite intentionally evokes a cast of beloved characters from stage or screen. Each poem bears a short title with the name of the actress in the starring role in parenthesis (first name, last initial). I almost wrote that the poems are "sassy," but that belittles the poems' energy and poignancy. They are less overtly surrealistic and image-heavy than the lyrics in her previous book, Lampblack and Ash, but still fully Muenchy:
from 1: the fever: (starring kristy b): Sweet Kristy of the culvert, the ankle turn, the verb imperfect, and sailors' notebooks.
from 12: the bestiary (starring jackie w): O lady of the bossa nova. O girl born of semaphors. Into the moss and phosphorus. Into the salt marsh of subjunctive silence.
In both of these poems, syntax and grammar become part of the of identities of the women. This is also the case for jessie m, "One mason jar, one wineglass, and a verb" (the ferment) and kimberly l "A girl leans across a counter, edges of her hair flaring neon. She is a verb written on a cardboard mannequin" (outline in neon). And it is mackenzie c, moving "between syllable & windshield," who "can't see her way out of syntax." Nietzsche claimed that we are prisoners of a grammar we did not create.
And so it is.
But, the language that has been used (and not used) to erase women from any meaningful record, is, after all the language that poetry can refute, rebut, and rename.
The most successful section of the book, "Rehearsal" includes the Orange Girl Suite, in which each poem bears a title from an orange-based entry in the OED. Here, Muench marries history and herstory (did I really just type that? And, am I seriously leaving it in?) in provocative ways. Turning on the latent violence directed at so many girls, the poems try to create and recreate female identity and to reclaim beauty ripped from them.
Punctuating the poems about girls and orange girls are more personal poems, including some about her own illness, like the fantastic, "Count Backward Toward a Future with You in It:
Nothing prepares us for dying,
not even dying. Nothing separates us
from the sun's luminous text,
the way words enter skin in fire spirals
lilting the room into a red vivarium.
Splinter sung our puckered lips.
That's great stuff. Bold language for a bold book.
At its best Orange Crush marries the personal with the political, and it's never dysfunctional. At its worst, it can come off as, perhaps, too rhetorical. But, even that is a sin of excess, a transgression of looking outward. If the Swedes think we are too often and too fully gazing inward, we all might do well to commit Muench's kind of sin a little more often.