Lampblack & Ash
by Simone Muench
Winner of the 2004 Kathryn A. Morton Prize
Reviewed by C. J. Laity
Before you read Simone Muench's new book Lampblack & Ash, take this little test. Define these words: adder, ferric, phosphene, scrim, stridulation, threnody, virga. Easy enough? Read the book then. Can't do it? In that case, I advise you to have a real good dictionary handy while you read this book for the first time, and use it often. It will be a rewarding experience, I promise. Then, read the book again without the dictionary, after you've familiarized yourself with detritus and alluvium and sediments and pigments used in ink as well as fertilizer, when you've practically become an amateur botanist. Now you can discover a beautiful love letter to Robert Desnos.
You might look at Lampblack & Ash as a book about flowers, but if you allow yourself to see into the mystery of Muench's microscopic lens, you'll learn that the light coaxing photosynthesis is "a woman's sleeve / sweeping over the field" and the wind is "singed with sumac". Like her "funambulist with zero visibility", I imagine Muench began her poetic journey into these poems not sure where it would lead her. The uncertainty undoubtedly opened doors to all sorts of unexpected pleasures. Muench ended up creating the most gorgeous volume of nature poems I have ever read. Muench has merged the weather with vegetation with earth to create a statement about humanity, though compared to the novel of nature depicted in this book, mankind is no more than a comma or a cedilla within it. It's as if Muench has put all the sooty minerals, silvery elements and exotic plants into a caldron, threw in a couple of glowing peaches, then recited a perfectly worded incantation, to create the wonderful spell that is her poetry.
The musicality of Muench's language is reminiscent of the beat poets, though at times I was tickled to hear a hip-hop rhythm to her words:
but he's in charge of repairing a roomful
of clocks that no longer tick-tock
but reel a tune like a jewelry box.
Muench's masterful vocabulary allows for a descriptive precision that is very rare in literature. This precision creates a celebration of the senses, so that rain smells like "moss and metal" and sounds are distinguishable:
listen to the fricative sigh
of fingers through tresses,
Muench always finds the perfect word—"Rhapsodic."—so that the rain is not only plucking, but is a "pizzicato of drizzle on a tin roof". Her knack for capturing the exact words needed is eerie, and the resulting creation of big images—"He's aloof as a sawtooth"—and original metaphors (such as poetry being a "diary tax") is nothing short of genius.
Muench delights in double meanings. "A fan of lentissimo" might mean one who appreciates music or it might mean a cooling device oscillating at a slow speed. The poem "In Medias Res" is one which concentrates on the blackness of things, so when the line "The blues are no refuge" pops up, we naturally envision different shades of the color blue. But the first line of the next stanza shows us the double meaning of the word blues: "filtering out of a nearby bar like a confession".
The well timed play on words in this book is enchanting, allowing for many layers of interpretation:
. . .She's a rubified rubric.
She's you and your. Abused
and suffused. Marooned in red
To make Medusa purr without saying so is a feat in itself, but when salvia appears in a mouth, we can't help but to rearrange the letters to find saliva. And when the beauty of the language comes in the form of technical terms for plants and meteorological conditions, well! The execution of such a difficult task done with such ease caused me to moan out "Oh Simone!" as if I was basking in a rich chocolate desert.
Muench's wit is impeccable. In the poem "Robert Desnos and the Hummingbird", which is a poem within a poem, she addresses Desnos at the beginning: "A poem about you would begin with a tiger, a cobra / a salami sandwich . . ." As she continues this ode, she speaks of how she is connected to Desnos, how her own work is inspired by his work:
It would indulge in hyperbole: you are as exotic
as an ocelot, or the merge of an abacus
with a hummingbird—a moving scale of song.
Muench adds plenty of color to her poems. Red has texture and the sea is "verdigris". The colors she selects do not inspire images of reality but rather images of paintings, often abstract:
Pink as lox, flush
of lobster. She's a risk
and a rush. Firewater.
Let me show you a trick of the abstract that Muench pulls off that any illusionist would be proud of. Early in the book, Muench plants a subliminal message by using the word "liminal" in a poem, and then she proceeds throughout the book to create weird examples of the borders of her own imagination's binary construction, such as these images occupying the opposite poles horror and folly:
The dead still smell and collect the river's
detritus in tangled tresses, surprised mouths.
In front of a church, an uprising of skirts
as choir girls congregate for a photograph
or even the opposite borders of taste:
shoulders, Bordeaux; no shoulders, Burgundy
Actually, the poetry in this book as a whole is pretty bi-polar, often using levity to describe depression:
. . .The sun's
just a rerun. I'd come to your funeral
if I were in a better mood . . .
While reading Lampblack & Ash, we find ourselves in a fairy tale that is a metaphor for, as well as an escape mechanism from, our own fears and regrets:
I could crawl through after curfew
into night's bruises and pearl light, swallowing
Boone's Farm, and pulling my clothes off
in petals: he loves me, he loves me not.
More precisely, we find ourselves in a fable where hopes become magical images:
. . .You tell her you'll twist wisteria,
the scented limbs of cherry trees
into a home . . .
and loss becomes something less threatening:
Though you're a fig tree borer
and I'm a goldfinch watching you
funnel your way through my home.
Seems to me many of these poems were inspired by what was before Muench's eyes, paintings or a simple glance up into a tree, or any number of other things inspiring her in her life. But I also think it is futile to exert much energy trying to figure out what these origin points are, because the poetry itself transcends into something unique, until Muench is talking about something else altogether, if anything in particular at all.
Unlike most poetry books that I read, which contain some poems that I like and others that I'm not so fond of, each poem in Lampblack & Ash contains greatness in its own right. For an author to be able to maintain a full length book without missing a single beat is astonishing. You can pick up any anthology of poetry from any country or era and not find poetry better than this. Muench is a Picasso of poetry and a Mozart of literature.
I must admit, however, that I got dizzy reading this book. It reminded me of when I was a kid at a carnival, having eaten every corndog, cotton candy and snowcone in sight, having ridden on all the rides, having played all the games, having been seduced by the abundance of pleasures until my stomach was queasy. Taking into account many poets fail to stimulate my senses at all, I guess I can't criticize Simone Muench for overly stimulating my senses.
To learn more about the author, check out SimoneMuench.com.
To learn more about the publisher, check out SarabandeBooks.org.
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Note: Here is a review of Simone Muench's book Lampblack & Ash.