I am drawn to poetry that uses words not just as vocabulary, but for their musical qualities. Simone Muench is deft at using words for both diction and sound, making them a pleasure to read for meaning as well as music.
Muench’s second book builds on the same darkness, strong rhythm and imagery found in her first book, Lampblack and Ash. The title refers to girls who in the late 17th century sold oranges at the front of theaters to wealthy patrons and were “considered little better than prostitutes.” Muench balances the historic orange girls with other historic and current voices: Caribbean slaves, women bound by corsets, and contemporary poets and artists
Orange Crush moves through four sections. The first of these, “Record,” focuses on historical aspects of women’s lives and the abuses they suffered. Throughout the section, images or outright statements about witchcraft, disease, hope, blame, death and sex abound. One stand-out lyrical poem titled “You Were Long Days and I Was Tiger-Lined,” discomforts not only by being in the voice of the slave, but in its sexual imagery. She is “encumbered by the whip’s lasciviousness” and says that “the whip’s encounter loosens the back to plumage.” This echoes in the last lines of the poem, asking,”[…] how/ can a dead girl swerve into flight and miss the sky altogether.” In “Psalm,” young girls are burned to death in a convent school. Lines like “The convent said fire. The fire/ said kindness. Kindness/ took a victim […]” make readers think of death as a blessing, a reprieve from a life burdened by sickness. Several poems examine facets of bondage, from women being bound in chemotherapy’s catheters to 19th century corsets.
The two center sections, “Rehearsal” and “Recast,” examine the imagined historical Orange Girls and the treatment they suffered, and real modern women who live independent lives and, given modern freedoms, can live much different lives than women of the past. Several movements in “Orange Girl Suite” show the orange girls murdered: “a man folds the girl up in newspapers” Another woman’s body sinks into a river, her “hair webbed with algae.” Several of the later poems blend the historic girl wearing “a yellow shawl and pearl earrings” with modern women wearing “short skirts after dark.” In the contemporary “Orange Girl Cast,” Muench dedicates prose poems to female poets who are her friends, depicting them as characters “starring” in each poem. These poems are something of a reprieve from the darkness of the first two sections. “The Arsonist (starring brandi h)” begins, “Her calendar charm kick-starts men’s lips while her wrists drop with doorbells.”
Balanced with playful images are honest comments on women’s lives. They suffer from sadness, past abuses, and dangerous encounters. They are sexy and smart. One of my favorites is “The Fever (starring kristy b)” with its line, “Sweet Kristy of the corset, […] born to unzip men’s breath, their clamorous wrists with an alphabet on her breast, a switchblade pinned to her taffeta thigh.”
The final section, “Redress,” is like a voice tying the strands together, telling readers to “Find/ your way out of this/ deathness, Baby,” and “Be a serrated knife to the softness./ Be a bangle bracelet to a broken arm.” These lines from the poem “Pages from an Unknown Title,” are a fitting ending to a book of poems meant to move readers to think of how far women have come, and how the fight against abuse and blame isn’t over.
In the end, Orange Crush seems like a Brothers’ Grimm fairy tale of caution. And in that vein, all fairy tales need a teller to explain the dangers, unfold the lessons.
Published in Cider Press Review, 2012.