Lampblack & Ash by Simone MuenchSimone Muench is not to be trusted. Her poetry is stronger, more linguistically skilled than most you’ll read in journals, but I can’t shake the feeling that the poet is holding us -- and her best work -- at arm’s length. In her newest collection, Lampblack & Ash, her publisher Sarabande compares Muench with Plath, but this book cannot possibly stand up to that comparison. Plath was not afraid to open up her chest and show you the heart still pumping blood; Muench refuses to get her hands dirty. Instead of Plath, the intellectualized Muench should be compared with Wallace Stevens as both have an immense facility with language. Like Stevens, Muench resuscitates dead words and strings them together to create a loose, intriguing narrative. Take for instance the imagery and voice she creates in “Drowning by the Light of Oranges”:
a pinned flame,
an asterisk of snow
disappearing in the thin
isolation of my dress;
in nightcrush and suck,
For those neophytes who expect poetry to be nothing more than a good story or pure emotion, I would point them to Muench because of what she is able to achieve with language, but I would do so with a warning.
There is no doubt that Muench, who is poetry editor of ACM and a doctoral student at University of Illinois at Chicago, is an extremely talented writer. Muench’s work, however intelligent it is, is simply that, intelligent. Almost every poem has an end note, a testament to her vast array of knowledge and her favorite poets (Robert Desnos figures prominently in this book). As a result of this intelligence, her poems end up reading like formulaic notes from her studies. We are told, as if we are good little students, what poetry is and what a poem about Robert Desnos would be, but rarely do her poems break out of the formula to create their own worlds. No where else is this formula more transparent and ridiculous than in “The OED defines Red-Hot,” which is simply a list of words associated with a “red” woman that ends with the over-the-top lines:
and suffused. Marooned in red.
Tinted woman. Caught in
a Pompeii cauldron of poppies,
rubies: a red-hot
When Muench actually uses her skill, her yoking of words is breathtaking, but
so often they read more like sophomoric puns: “hummingbirds & and
honey buzzards,” “You are archaic/ & I am archival.” Perhaps
it is because of her mastery of language that her poems lack depth; they lack
duende. I do appreciate the poetic crescendo with their increasingly dramatic
linguistic moments, but overall Muench’s collection embodies the problem
of poets in academia: a lack of imagination. In her next collection, I’d
like to see if Muench can break away from the trap of the intelligentsia.
Lampblack & Ash by Simone Muench