I Have an Orange Crush

In her newest collection of poetry, Orange Crush, Simone Muench devotes an entire section to the Orange Girls.  According to the back jacket of the book, “In the seventeenth century, the closest a woman ever got to a theater was just outside the door, selling sweet “china” oranges at sixpence each — or maybe herself — to the audience.”    These girls, we later find out, were viewed as just a little better than common prostitutes.    For many readers (including myself) this bit of women’s history is new, and intriguing.  As I dove into these poems, I was first reminded of the novels of Jean Rhys.  Some of the lines are best read in their historical context, that is a description of an Orange Girl’s experience in eras past.   For example, in the voice of one girl we hear an explanation of her job and maybe even her identity: “there are only two ways/to peel an orange/in fragments or in one/coiling brightness.” 

But most of the poems in this section are chillingly contemporary.  For example, in one poem, one girl laments “We were translated by churchwomen/who placed umlauts over our words”.    In another poem, the poet explains the plight of a murdered girl who was “dragged along the waterfront//dropped in a dumpster wearing/a yellow shawl and pearl earrings.”   The city that hovers over this girl is cruel, “thick with cold cases and ripped pantyhose/ligature marks and headlines blaming women//for wearing short skirts after dark.”

This is Muench’s style: She blends surreal images with details so gritty that readers may find themselves looking at their fingers to see if there is dirt on their skin.  Furthermore, Muench’s work may be rooted in history, but there’s no denying the contemporary “feel” of her words,  thus proving that women’s history (or any history, really) is not linear, but a constant loop.  What we know, or don’t know about the past, may (and probably will) reappear in our present.

The Orange Girls are center stage in this collection, but they have a strong supporting cast.  There’s another section of poems devoted to today’s Orange Girls, so to speak. This section, titled “Orange Girls Cast”  contains several poems each dedicated to a contemporary woman poet.  For example, “the train track” describes poet mary b (Mary Biddinger) with references to Biddinger’s book Prairie Fire.  Another poem, “the arsonist” is dedicated to brandi h (Brandi Homan), and so on and so forth.  Even if one does not know the references or the particular works of these contemporary women poets, it would be easy to get lost (in a good way) in Muench’s lyrical language.

Other poems in the book dive into the lives of forgotten women and bits of pushed aside history.  For instance, “A Captivating Corset” plays with images of women’s constrictive clothing, explaining “We look for refuge but drift to damage/towards asphyxiation & cord slippage.”  In another poem, “Bind” Muench uses an old ballad for a backdrop to murder: “Amidst a cage of drowned brides/there is one who floats/free.  Her veil still attached/drags her upward/into warmer water.”

The work of Simone Muench is new to me, and I have to say that Orange Crush was not an easy read.   I have read this collection twice, and while many of  the poems contained images that stayed with me long after I put the book down, other works left me breathless and bewildered, wondering about these women, and the stories told that I didn’t quite understand.

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