On first looking into Simone Muench’s “Orange Crush,” I can’t say that I felt like stout Cortez staring out at the Pacific. Reading Muench’s first poem’s opening lines, “Trouble came and trouble / brought greasy, ungenerous things,” I flashed on lyrics from the venerable Broadway show, “The Music Man”: “Ya got trouble / With a capital T / And that rhymes with P / And that stands for pool”!
Down-home America also plays its bit part throughout this book in Muench’s many variations on the word “sweet,” as in “Cedar / sweetness of skin instructs,” “like violet pastilles / so sweet,” “the faint sweet scent of bakery shelves” and so forth, including ironic uses of the word, plus the homonym “suite.” Based on her references to her stomping grounds in Arkansas and Louisiana, and her being a fan of horror films, along with her casual mention of things like “a dress / designated for dance, thin, / as cocktail napkins,” I jumped to conclusions: Muench was a Southern Gothic post-bellum belle of the ball, half–Scarlett O’Hara, half–Anne Rice.
The truth is far more complex—and simpler. In her third full-length collection Muench is as musically inclined as Meredith Willson’s music man, “Professor” Harold Hill—a con artist in “River City,” Iowa—and as hyperkinetic as Margaret Mitchell’s heroine. Thank goodness Muench doesn’t pine for Ashley Wilkes or Rhett Butler. If she doesn’t always succeed in carpe-ing the diem, at least she doesn’t hang around whining, “Tomorrow is another day.”
In terms of where she stands vis-à-vis The American Poetry Crowd, Muench is quite au courant. At just a smidgen over 40, she’s a non-card-carrying member of what Stephen Burt, in his seminal essay back in 1998, called the Elliptical Poets. Closer to the Arkansan C. D. Wright than to the Canadian Anne Carson or that quintessential Steel City-cum-New Yorker, Lucie Brock-Broido, Muench approaches her material sideways, as in the 2004 wine-aficionado movie of the same title. She sees things out of the corner of her eye. Which is to say her poems lack the straightforward focus of a poet like Elizabeth Bishop or Carol Muske-Dukes, though Muske-Dukes has often grown restless with the frontal nudity of events.
Like dozens—hundreds—of her poet peers who became adolescents during The Reagan Years, in her work Muench doesn’t much care about telling stories. Whether she heard too many tall tales told by the Gipper or reacted negatively to some of her predecessors in verse like Louise Glück and Diane Wakoski—both to a certain extent practitioners of the narrative—or, as may be the likeliest case, whether Muench abandoned full-blown narration because she believed that any one story was an reductio ad absurdum of The Big Story of the Universe, Muench and her fellow Ellipticals have said bye-bye to “Once upon a time” and “They lived happily ever after,” as well as to the frequently tedious details between these signposts. Anecdotes, fables, parables: all are passé to poets able to leap from here to there, from now to then—and think more in terms of Picasso’s collages than of Edward Hopper’s mise en scènes.
On the other hand, Muench touches on bondage narratives. Without constructing sequential plots, she deals with women’s lack of liberation and some of its awful particulars. Condensing what could be the early slave years of Sojourner Truth, in a poem about a young girl’s suicide titled “You Were Long Days and I Was Tiger-Lined,” Muench initially lashes the reader: “master wear a mask when you break out the leather.” No need to explain the link between whipping and being “tiger-lined”; Muench’s work suggests a woodshed of lost connections in a single image.
A few years ago in an important mixed review of her second book, “Lampblack & Ash,” critic Joel Brouwer took Muench to task for her lushness, her “extravagant language.” There’s nothing in “Orange Crush” to indicate that she’s followed Brouwer’s advice to “rein in” the wild horses loping through these poems. Indeed, to call her a painterly imagist or an abstract expressionist with Fauvist tendencies—plus an Elliptical—begins to sound accurate. But the imagist Pound constructed a detailed chronological account of a river-merchant’s wife, based on a poem by Li Po, and perhaps the homiest of Pound’s successors, the Deep Imagist James Wright, fashioned a documentary about blue-collar desolation that featured high-school football players in Martins Ferry, Ohio. In contrast, one of Muench’s best poems, “I never was an orange girl; but I have the gutter in my blood all right,” conveys the nitty-gritty of being a twenty-first-century woman in a poignant pinup catalogue/collage of tercets. Notice, by the way, that despite her inclusive list, Muench never refers to “good girl” or, more crucially, to “bad girl.”
sweater girl, elevator girl,
factory girl unsnarling her pin curls,
gibson girl, varga girl
au pair girl, bunny girl, flower girl,
career girl, chorus girl, college girl,
cover girl, geisha girl, party girl
wayward girl, servant girl, bachelor girl,
campfire girl, working girl, give-it-a-whirl girl,
bar girl, call girl, check girl, farm girl
shop girl, street girl
sausage curl girl,
poor girl, you speak like a green girl
between two girls, which hath the merriest eye?
flint and pearl alike
my cold cold girls!
The italicized antepenultimate line here, with its shaky word usage—“which” instead of “who,” “merriest” instead of “merrier”—understandably underscores working-class substandard English. Elsewhere, too, the book could be a grammarian’s funeral, or at least his comeuppance. Muench mentions “Babies born / with clubfoots”; “We lay down [in the present tense] // fixed as wax”; and she plays switcheroo with an verbal that is ordinarily intransitive, “lilting the room into a red vivarium.” Her poems showcase complete sentences side by side with fragments, making the rhythm tilt almost like a pinball machine. For all her proletarian sympathies, her book bristles with such inkhorn terms as “cascarilla,” “portacath,” “tumulus,” “Kittlerian,” “alizarin,” “Marabou,” “bachata,” “brachial” “foehn,” “matryoshka,” “naphthalene,” “lenticular” and “versal.”
If I were William Logan, I might now make a snide remark about how these poems put Robert Desnos and Pablo Neruda through a blender and come out tasting like a smoothie—or, better yet, a Ward’s Orange Crush—from Victoria’s Secret! I could go on and rant about how Muench’s book is a spinoff of Karyna McGlynn’s 2009 Sarabande Books noir poetry collection recently reviewed in this journal, “I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl.” Luckily, I am not William Logan nor was meant to be.
In fact, I find a lot to like about Muench. First off, I find her versatility impressive. There’s plenty of musical atonality and dissonance in these poems, but once in a while they revert to old-fashioned, kick-ass trochees and iambs, as in “Hex,” which I quoted in the first paragraph of this essay. Willy-nilly, Muench’s final metrical quatrain reminds me of parts of e. e. cummings’s “anyone lived in a pretty how town”:
Trouble is and trouble was
and trouble came and sang
shush-shush or tell-tell
in a small small town
Then, too, although many of Muench’s poems use free verse, her third section/chapter entitled “Orange Girl Cast” starring personal women poet-friends whose names have been reduced in epigraphs to “kristy b,” “sophia k” and so on—this “recast” of the ambitious title poem “Orange Girl Suite” is a sequence of 13 prose poems that cannily use the second- and third-person points of view to describe their dramatis personae. Here’s the first prose-poem paragraph of “the bestiary (starring jackie w)”:
In a tongue-snap sky, waxwings unspool over the plains. He was a whisper, she was Nebraska. Her hands pepperweed, pebble, pearl to pearl, so tone-smooth. Her mouth speaks, a red canary to a dime cigar. Spittle sheen. There are worse things than being a pretty Catholic girl without any guilt.
One could do worse than admire the writing here. Muench’s “tongue-snap sky,” her waxwings that “unspool over the plains,” her male character who “was a whisper”—all this, and so much more, have the sweetness of unheard music, fresh sound and sense galore. Moreover—and perhaps most important for me—Muench’s evocations of women crushed by Taliban-like hordes of men yet somehow rising to converge empowered throughout history is something readers need to pore over.
On her book’s last page Richard Every’s photo of the author shows an attractive woman with horn-rimmed eyeglasses and a terrific smile. What a deceptive yet ultimately fitting portrait of Simone Muench, the Windy City vegetarian, the devotee of scary films, who, in her poems, carves bits and snippets for blood-and-guts scripts of unending, uplifting horror shows!
James Reiss, whose most recent book is “Riff on Six: New and Selected Poems,” is Emeritus Professor of English and Founding Editor of Miami University Press at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. www.jamesreiss.com