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Reviews Fri Apr 15 2011

Poetry Review: Orange Crush by Simone Muench

Orange Crush
Simone Muench
Sarabande Books, 2010

Poetry is a sneaky beast - a poem can mean one thing to one person and mean something completely different to someone else. For me, Orange Crush is all about women: their persecution, their struggle to become something, and their refusal to give up. Simone Muench follows this arc in elegant little bursts of language that takes the reader from "Fever-damaged girls/...Spells/and vixens and dead calico kittens" to "We were once lithographs smeared/with ink-chapped hands, now we are/smooth and inscrutable as bone china..."

Muench's collection starts with "Record," a section devoted to the abuse of women - each poem a tribute to their mistreatment, be it whipping, "the room grows thick with incisions [...] weather me better master" ("You Were Long Days and I Was Tiger-Lined"); witch hunts, "...the little girls/are sick, their voices muffled/by smoke and wool/hands and psalms" ("Psalm"); illness, "We lay down//fixed as wax, let the hospital's/IV & ghost sonata troll through us" ("Count Backward Toward a Future with You in It"); or even by their own design, "Surge of marrow when the body bends/toward its own dismantling..." ("A Captivating Corset"). These poems bleed death and memories - "records" of wrongs not easily forgotten. The last poem in the section, "Photograph 3014: Execution of an Unknown Child" brings this idea sharply into focus as each part ("frame" of the photograph) cleanly captures a "Record of the executed."

The next section, "Rehearsal," pays homage to the "Orange Girls." In the 17th century, the Orange Girls were women who sold small "china" oranges outside of theaters, occasionally passing messages from patrons to actresses and, allegedly, occasionally passing themselves out as well. This section consists of a long, 13-part poem detailing the Orange Girls "rehearsal" for a regular life: They sell oranges, and themselves, for an income and survival - the same way a salesman/shop owner sells his wares. Unfortunately, because they are women, and seen as little more than prostitutes, they don't receive respect or recognition, "...we were sold/in beautiful clothes...//...we were movie stars/who never entered the frame" ("Orange Girl Suite, 1"). They are treated as unimportant - used once and thrown away, literally, "own skin gathering the Baltic's//debris, an intersection of earrings/and quiet, wrists and ropes" ("5"). And because of who they are and what they do, the people surrounding them don't care about their fate and may even place the blame on the girls themselves, "this city closes its windows to the odor//and forgets that a girl went missing/forgets any girl who 'got herself strangled'" ("7").

Redemption is gained with the next two portions of the book, however. In "Recast," Muench provides descriptions of her envisioned Orange Girls who seem to be the ones running the show, despite their "job" and reputation. Kristy b is "...born to unzip men's breath.../a switchblade pinned to/her taffeta thigh" ("Orange Girl Cast, 1: the fever"); Sophia k is "no odalisque in organza, she imprisons pharaohs in her spine" ("2: the femme fatale"); and Brandi h has a "...thorned orbit. Her/breath full of footprints and soporific ruin" ("3: the arsonist"). Others are "recast" from victims to victors, strong enough to define themselves as something more: Jesse m "...says, 'Wring the nightshade from my eyes. Let me be/an explosion.'" ("6: the ferment"); Lina v "Radiates silver convexity. Her eyes/ever apogee, not apology" ("9: the elliptic mirror"); and Mackenzie c, "A pinafore on/the floorboard of the car, and she's speeding away" ("13: the aperture"). Escape - and revenge - is sweet as we move to the last section, "Redress." "Bind" reinterprets the ballad "False Sir John." In the tale, Sir John woos women and then drowns them. His eighth bride, May Colven, turns the tables and drowns Sir John instead. As seen in Muench's version, May Colven isn't the only one who saves herself - all women save themselves, as well: "when sailors and map-makers/return to the crime, we tie their ropes/...leave them sinking/...and climb the rungs of the sea." Others in this section do the same, freeing themselves, "But I'm adrift, no longer/your delivery" ("Pages from an Unknown Title, page 448") and seeking retribution, "While you fumble her flesh/...she pockets your wallet" ("epilogue").

I have to say, I love this book. Muench's style is a style, as a former wanna-be poet, I always wanted to match: short and to the point, but it cuts to the quick. Her poems have beautiful juxtapositions, such as "Lady of cornhusks & sericulture, arrowheads & fruit bats" and unusual adjectives, like "Fever-lit and gin-livid." However, I did find myself looking up quite a few words that I didn't recognize. For some, this might be a bit off-putting - it might take a reader out of the momentum of the poem. But there is music in the language; each poem has a lovely flow: "Broadcast of vendors & shoulders bustling with cannon/percussion in the retinal ring out of peignoir signage" ("Her Dreaming Feet"). This collection is also very visual, bringing to mind many images and many colors. Most of these images are natural, organic elements like bone and water, wood and fire, filled with deep, dark reds and yellows. These are poems that envelop you - poems that you can sink into and lose yourself in. So even if you don't keep a dictionary handy, and even if the poems don't make perfect sense upon first read, you still want to read them again and again.

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