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A Review of Simone Muench's "Orange Crush"

 Pebble Lake Review, Spring/Summer 2011

A Review of Simone Muench's Orange Crush

Simone Muench’s third collection of poetry, Orange Crush (Sarabande Books, 2010), examines the current state of women in the arts, particularly poetry, via a historical, personal, and imaginative lens.  Utilizing rotating images, metaphors, and narrative threads within a thematic structure, the first section, "Record" opens “Trouble came and trouble / brought greasy, ungenerous things: / poke root and bladderwrack, / chalklines in bloody bedrooms…” (“Hex” 3) and goes on to chronicle the physical, mental, and sexual abuse women have been victim to throughout history.

In “You Were Long Days and I Was Tiger-Lined,” for example, “a young girl h[angs] herself in summer // with the reins of her horse” and “a dead girl swerve[s] into flight and misses the sky altogether” (5).  In “Psalm” “Fever-damaged girls” wear “bone / bonnets” and lie in “blue/ beds for their snapped / necks” (8).  In “A Captivating Corset,” connotative language, symbolism, and syntactical switches display the psychological damage that results from this history of violence: “We look for refuge but drift to damage, / toward asphyxiation & cord slippage. / Propose, then dispose.  In a vaporous season, half-meanings visit the backdoor with frisson” (6). 

The second section, “Rehearsal,” is comprised of “Orange Girl Suite,” a single, eighteen-page poem of fifteen sections about young girls in the 17th Century who peddled oranges to make a living outside the theaters only men were allowed to enter. Each section is titled with quotes from the OED, and it becomes clear right away that the orange girls are selling themselves to theater-goers more often than oranges.  The results of this off-hand form of prostitution are much the same as they are today.  The girls in the first section are “movie stars / who never entered the frame”; those of the third claim “I’ll be white teeth, an abandoned town, a wrapped parcel. // I’ll be a blonde in a black smock with sex / appeal”; and, in the fourth section,

                        a man folds the girl up in newspapers

                        her wet hair a string of taffy, a rope, something

                        unraveling inside the man’s eye


                        when he killed her he said listen

                        when he killed her he said

                        your soul…   (25, 27, 28)

Originally published as a chapbook (Orange Girl, Dancing Girl Press, 2007), “Orange Girl Suite” reveals that our culture's attitude regarding the murder and rape of women hasn't changed as much as we’d like to believe when, in the seventh section, a girl is “dragged along the waterfront, // dropped in a dumpster…” and is blamed for getting “herself strangled … // for wearing short skirts in the dark” (32, 33).  Sure the symbols and institution of prostitution may have changed, but, the poem argues, the excuses we make for it and who we hold culpable for its resulting crimes don’t seem to have shifted nearly as much.

The third section, “Recast,” is composed of a long sequence of prose poems entitled "Orange Girl Cast." Each poem bares its own title and “stars” a contemporary female poet.  Here is a small piece of the first section:

1: the fever

   (starring kristy b)


Sweet Kristy of the culvert, the ankle turn, the verb imperfect, and sailors’

notebooks.  In the metropolis of binoculars and chicken bones, in this city

black with chicken-wire alchemists and bloody gutters, she feigns a fever

in her red brassiere… (47)

If “Orange Girl Suite” works to eulogize the orange girls of history, “Orange Girl Cast” celebrates the women who have successfully entered the academy and are producing poetry today.  Sophia K of “2: the femme fatale” isn’t “winter sweet minutiae, she’s iridescent yellow, a meteorite.  You can’t fold her up inside like a cocktail napkin” (48).  Likewise, the “calendar charm” of Brandi H in “3: the arsonist” “kick-starts men’s lips while her wrists drip with doorbells” (49). 

These poems are the sort that repeatedly surprise and that, as with much of Muench’s work, don’t always make a lot of immediate sense.  They are so startlingly fresh, musical, and weird, however, that readers can’t help but read on.  And, as the title of the section (“Recast”) and of the poem itself (“Orange Girl Cast”) suggest, the women who star in these poems are equated with the orange girls of the past.  True, Muench implies, these women may be in less physical danger than the orange girls, but their status as productive individuals in our culture isn't much improved.

The fourth and final section, “Redress,” opens with an epigraph by Kathie Acker: “All of us girls have been dead for so long. / But we’re not going to be anymore” and appears to work to empower women in the six poems that follow (61).  The woman in “With Pendant and Bending Arch,” for example, “dial[s] [her lover’s] large white teeth / with her tanager-tongue” and croons “No one is without stories” (63).  The drowned brides of “Bind” entangle the ropes of the sailors who return to the scene of their deaths and “leave them / sinking as we sing new shanties / and climb the rungs of the sea” (68).  The final couplet of “Chiascuro” ends the book with a bold, declaration: “reflected in the sea / is the reversal of yourself / … / vast is a word the sea owns / beneath it your shadow shines” (75).

Overall, Orange Crush is not an easy book to read.  It is not narrative; rather, it is thematic, harnessing the power of structure and organization to make its arguments and tell its stories. It’s a book that asks a lot of a reader who might get a bit lost in these sequences that rely more on image and their position in the book than more traditional elements to create meaning.  But it’s not fair to say Orange Crush is a difficult read either; rather, Orange Crush is a lyrical book organized around a symbolic structure and the various artifacts Muench utilizes to create and illuminate that structure (such as epigraphs, a few brief end notes, the OED, etc…) along the way.  This complexity makes for an experience that’s impossible to duplicate, and the poems themselves are wonderfully well written. 

If originality is something we covet in Contemporary American poetry, Orange Crush has made its mark.  If we care about poems that have something to say about our world, Orange Crush most certainly speaks.  And if we care to encounter great poems, Orange Crush is a good place to find them.

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