WHEN YOU ASK, YOU CARRY
When you ask, you carry
hordes upon your flattened
breasts, leafing out -- two cages
in open pasture with star-nosed
moles retiring, or floating
in boats, gunwaled, giving transit
permanence amid a sleet
of plum blossoms. Everything
too sudden, our son doesn’t realize.
Your day to bathe -- the history
of costume -- the jacksy bush,
the over-large love canal, having come far
indeed, an abandoned furnace,
against islands of treetops
far off, the blue ridges blackening.
APPREHENDED AT A DISTANCE
Disintegrated silence. Goes
without saying, yet fails
to reach meaning. A shrug,
an absurd onward.
In life without wanting
the world – things don’t
add up, but are in range.
I am sexually incoherent
and lack rhythm; I am
apprehended at a distance.
You are a thing for others –
give a gift. I was in that
thing – history in modes
of coping, bodily habits;
fucking without flirtation.
I miss your mechanical
attention. I subtract parts
of myself – now it, and it,
less I, without ceasing
to exist, commentary without
counterforce. Still, I should
like to be found well-composed
and wearing my glasses.
The lights dim and
I know you're in the attic
doing whatever thieves do
you must have mistaken me
for Ingrid Bergman
and yourself the British version
that they tried to destroy
Your first date is at a place
that's called the Gaslight
secret letters and the
rubies are disguised
in the morning he will say you
took his wallet
his friend there is the chef
and the DJ is just terrible
Now you're at the can-can with
some parlor maid
I'm pleading that these
headaches will subside
the detective has told me
your real name so
we pick the lock
find all you have to hide
Your first date is at a place
that's called the Gaslight
though he promised
he would take you to the show
you'll run crying with a gold broach
to your family
not until they've
tied him to a chair
is pouring out
from the broken
windows. It’s dark
quiet. Bats and
ravens hang silent
from the wires,
and I’m walking
the end and everything
is tilting and not quite
a mould of myself—a sarcastic
one—to the Prince of Peace church
in Niagara Falls.
I do this in
uncomfortable situations—leaving pieces
of myself with
the perfect people; permanent offense
is a cathartic pleasure.
He hates my sarcasm; it gnaws
and burrows and endlessly drips
(on his forehead)
but I love the feeling of
covering him, like chocolate
syrup on ice cream.
After he took Communion
I asked him, “Did it taste good?”
and while he shrugged I
And I can’t forget how during Communion,
his grandmother—brimming with Alzheimer’s--
crowed, “Where’s my husband?”
and we all giggled.
I wanted to leave a piece with her
maybe in some vain hope
of recognition the next
time I visited, but I felt
that might be out of
My grandmother lost herself in letters and syntax and grapes that refused to ripen, waiting for my grandfather to come back and rebuild their charred house, to hang the Jesus holograph photo in the kitchen. She waited for us to come back for her empty yellow high chair she glued to the ceiling and for her low oak branch that hoisted us onto thrones and prison cells.
Her letters reversed themselves on paper as they traveled across state lines. She revealed truths of songs turned to scissors and leaves turned to cats and still I replied, writing each letter in straight lines, dousing the corners in chardonnay and licorice. I admitted great secrets in whispers and told her of my sexual conquests with other women I had accidentally fallen down for.
She said I was her favorite and sent a slice of doughy apple pie inside cat-figured salt and pepper shakers. She explained her green thumb was cut and wouldn't stop bleeding on the apple tree my grandfather planted in his lungs.
I dribbled the pie along my windowsill and wrote that the cats were well-fed and keeping the paprika in check. I asked if she missed my father fishing in the pool of wire and trout and God and screwdrivers, if she knew he sat long nights in front of fires eating cherry tree branches, if she could write and explain his father was hammering and painting and hanging and fishing for brook trout.
She scribbled my father's name and let the pencil find the side of the paper then take over. It sketched water lilies stretching off the page, notes deflating and missing the paper's lines, locks without keys, bowls of plastic bananas, apples, pears. It snuggled in the white spaces and bent and tore her Ts and Ns and Es until it collapsed off the page and table to rest.
She apologized and explained her thoughts were runny and smelled like new books. She remembered a small girl who once climbed her oak tree and plucked winter branches off to paint leaves on the ends. She asked if I remembered—the girl who donned a summer dress and jumped from the low branch, flapping frozen branches in each hand as she fell.
II. I Thought We Could Be Happy Here
Find a way in. It’s the first step. It’s easy. A crack, a loosely-fit pipe. A hole no larger than a dime. If I can fit my whiskers, the rest of me will follow, even heavy as I am with pups.
This house beckoned--I could smell the scent of a compost bucket, the trash can, a bag of dog food stored under the sink. So much to eat given we can live off bare crumbs.
Lots of fluff about. Lots of space to run behind the cupboards. I made a nest. I thought we could be happy here.
The pups came, and grew. They sang to me when I left to forage. Always plenty to eat. The people who live here--they are generous. “Leave the dishes ‘til morning,” I always hear them tell one another. It’s a great blessing to us.
But then--one of them saw me. Her shriek scared even the pups for a second, interrupting their song. I glanced back before diving into the oven control panel, to descend by way of wires to my children, my home. I saw her eyes. Panic, and worse: a determination. Recognition. We are at war.
War is full of waiting. And so there was a lull. Fewer crumbs, but we survived, though the pups were hardly that anymore. They’d begun to forage for themselves, in ever larger loops away from the nest.
I warned them. Be wary. Be cautious. I am an old mouse. You don’t get this old by running blindly at every delicious odor you smell.
It did no good.
I left the house one day, to scout some new place we might go, a secret place where the humans had no murder in their eyes. Upon my return the smell of peanut butter hung in the air, and I knew it was too late.
My children. My children. All my pups. She had trapped them, snapped them, every one.
Anger ripped through me, an anger too great for the body I had. It inflated me. I stretched, flesh straining flesh, until the pain threw a merciful blackness over my sight.
I awoke to the sound of a key in a lock, the tile of the floor cold against my unfamiliar, nearly hairless body. The dog found me first, barking as I huddled against the corner cupboard.
The woman came in next. “Who are you?” she demanded. I could smell her fear, different from that which I was wont to foment in her, but no less pungent.
I opened my mouth to speak, but words hadn’t come in the bargain with this human body. So instead I stood and pulled a heavy knife from the block while she gaped, standing herself as if stuck fast to the floor.
Encapsulated in her chapbook Trace, Simone Muench's "Wolf Cento" draws on the lines and fragments of 167 writers, from Akhmatova to Zanzotto, to reveal the wolf as it exists in its dis-incarnate, lyrical form, that is, as it exists within us. Muench separates the overarching cento into what I'll refer to individually as poems, though with the repetition of thematic elements and phrasings, the effect is a subtle bleeding into one another, as hinted at by the book's title.
To begin, let's address the fact that Trace is obviously a project-poem book. Dorothea Lasky's Poetry Is Not a Project confronts some of the problems associated with this approach, and while I largely agree with Lasky's observations, the cento has a long, robust tradition, being about two and half times older than the sonnet. That has to count for something, right? Being a project, however, it becomes essential to not half-ass the job, and here Muench holds up well. The fluidity with which she integrates 167 authors as varied as Dante and Levis, Frost and Vallejo, is astonishing. There are better and worse integrations, of course, but on the whole the book proceeds with a more or less unified voice. This is intellectually impressive and goes a long way to instill the reader with confidence that the author knows what she's doing. In turn, that confidence helps the reader to bridge the kind of gaps that inevitably emerge when reading a work constructed from fragments.
Though centos are in some sense a scholarly sort of exercise, Muench's aesthetic derives purely from the lyrical impulse. At its best, this results in arresting lines like:
The season lasted one moment, like the pause
between a girl's teeth
on the edge of sleep.
Or a few lines later in the same poem:
as you wrapped me with past
& passing tenses, with the emptiness
in your empty poison-tooth (25)
She leans frequently on poetry words. Stars and moons and bones and throats. But this is, I suppose, the wolf's proper domain. There's magic, "she sat with wolves & magicians" (6), and a haunted quality to the broken landscapes of the "Wolf Cento." Here Muench's unabashed lyricism operates at its finest, lines that rive you with shivers like the closing couplet of the third poem in the cento:
Like dizzy horses that dissolve into a dust of sheen,
I pass through them as they pass through me. (4)
In a work that relies on spell-binding rather than narrative, aphorism, epiphany, and so on, it's crucial that the spell be maintained. Muench does this, with one notable exception that I'm criticizing in detail not to scold her, but to make a larger point about the poet's obligation to get things right in a poem, however magical and lyrical that poem may be. Here's the offending poem "In moon-swallowed shadows," (15) which first appeared Poets & Artists:
In moon-swallowed shadows
amid the tiger-purring greenery
I take a wolf's rib & whittle it
into little months, little smokes
& oblivion. Beautiful,
those boys among the roses
where fiery blossoms clot the light
& we lick the blood off our paws.
How many have died
in sweeter morgues?
It was all like a childhood picture:
our windows ravenous
as snow wolves & again
a rose-petal falls in an empty bed.