Theory of Orange by Rachel M. Simon
A safe book about unsafe subjects, Theory of Orange features a likable poetic voice, one rooted in slightly off-center observations about recognizable experiences. One of Rachel M. Simon's most charming tricks is to make this likable voice reel off collections of absurdist one-liners, but there are also winsome poems about twenty-something love, moving poems about surviving a family member's suicide, and poems about, say, diabetic camp. To a certain extent, Simon's likeable, charming voice works to softpedal her poems, such that their impact is muffled. As a result, Theory of Orange can seem more enjoyable than provocative -- sort of a poetic comfort food.
In characterizing Theory of Orange as comfort food, I'm not trying to be patronizing -- rather, it strikes me that her basic method is to take a familiar conceit and dislocate it. The lead poem, for instance, "Recipe for Success," borrows its rhetoric from those horrid cross-stitch patterns of bromides such as "Recipe for a Happy Home": Take a pinch of X, a dash of Y, and so on. Simon's poem shifts rapidly between different registers. There's silliness: "Consider what a cape / might do for your aesthetic." Familiar, yet secret, knowledge: "Pitch your voice two feathers louder / than the hush of meeting your girlfriend's / older brother." But then there's the recognition of goads to ambition: "Dispose of any mementos / in your memento box to which / the associated memory does not evoke / instant boils." Elsewhere, Simon draws on experiences that are instantly familiar to those of us who moved away from our parents' homes to a big city apartment -- for example, she recurs twice (in "Wolcott Avenue" and "Early Correspondence") to the ability to control the heat for oneself.
Simon is a savvy reader of her own poems, frequently pausing to reflect on their operation. For example, she describes them as "Neither bitter or embittered / non-eponymous but partially self-referential," which is a neat way of capturing the way favorite details or images slide around from poem to poem. She also characterizes her poems as drawing on "stock images in the closet / of the imaginary." This phrase captures both Simon's appeal and what can be frustrating in her poems. While this is an alert self-reading, it also strikes me as itself too comfortable -- for example, the glancing biographical reference implied by the enjambment on "closet" is itself a familiar gesture. Theory of Orange constantly faces this question: Is the familiar image too familiar and comfortable, or does it manage to do something new? In "Anxiety," for instance, she complains about having "turned in this niche so many times, / I've worn the edges smooth around me," but not being quite ready to "dress up in the costumes of a new body."
Simon acknowledges that, to some extent, it's possible to read her poems' "partly self-referential" nature as a kind of screen. The book's final poem begins by stating that "This is the heavy piece of velvet I've / strung across troublesome emotion." It's not exactly that she avoids this trouble -- as I'll show in a second, her best poems are rooted in mourning and loss. But, to borrow a phrase famously used by Adrienne Rich in a similar context, Simon uses comfort, familiarity, and humor as "asbestos gloves" to manage emotion. I don't at all mean to suggest there's anything inauthentic about the poems -- only to say that Simon is hardly a confessional sort, even when she writes, "I'll be plain." It's also possible that she sees this indirection as a way of experiencing or preserving intense emotion, rather than turning away from it. For example, she observes that there is "Such difficulty, to compress raging / feelings onto simple cardboard signs." If one has a hydraulic theory of emotions, then "compressing" those "raging feelings" is only going to intensify them.
A good example of this compression is the sequence of poems responding to a family member's suicide -- "Precipitation," "When the Radiator is On I Dream of Funerals," "In a Season of Non-Natural Disasters," "Rope," "Present Tense," and "A Poem in Which You Became the Youngest in the Family." These poems all document, in a kind of mournful, loving exasperation, the ways in which suicide's devastation continues in unexpected ways. At the funeral, a condolence e-mail provokes a fresh outcropping of bleakness: "we must be a family of writers. A generation of immigrants / working hard to send children into academic lives, / one writer dad at age 20, without leaving a note." In "Rope," the speaker fantasizes about what it must have been like to choose a rope or cord with which to hang oneself, but then: "Two years later, / two years in which I've pressed my face / into a pillowcase every night / I'm told you used a bedsheet, spun and knotted." In these poems, Simon's "heavy piece of velvet" functions less as a cordon sanitaire than as a way of giving shape to a grief that threatens to overshadow everything.
Theory of Orange is an appealing first book of poems, albeit one that sometimes ends up settling for the familiar a little too quickly. However, that's hardly a fault, as it almost guarantees readers will find something to enjoy, whether its quirky wit or consolation.
Theory of Orange by Rachel M. Simon
Pavement Saw Press