Throughout the collection, the speaker in these poems is constantly aware of this contradiction, the intersection between life and art, perhaps frighteningly so, seeking solace in “these few things left,” trying to reconcile, like any reasonable artist, the internal with the external.
Maureen Thorson’s first collection of poems, Applies to Oranges, is an unconventional, fractured narrative, a story’s story that is full of opposite imagery, and a rotating cast of characters and objects, all told from the speaker’s forlorn tone of voice. This slim volume of untitled poems recount a loss of some sort or a “decay into ornament,” whether it concerns love, orange groves, a breakdown in communication, or even interior landscapes. In Thorson’s collection, memory is inseparable from the self, the past is reliant on the future, and the world is an artifact of irresistible magnitude, or as the speaker says, “like a photograph I can’t put down.”
But above all, Thorson’s work is one of art in the most romantic tradition. At the end of the collection, she writes, “the things that fail are the only things that stay,” insinuating that the one tenuous connection we have to this world is inherently flawed, a paradoxical have and have-not. In a world we experience in terms of the past, our memories, our art, and our words are shadows, “insectoid carcasses,” or much like the oranges that permeate this collection, dimpled peels that encase a perishable fruit. But despite their superficial nature, these stand-ins exist forever, “in a world that compasses/no destruction.” Throughout the collection, the speaker in these poems is constantly aware of this contradiction, the intersection between life and art, perhaps frighteningly so, seeking solace in “these few things left,” trying to reconcile, like any reasonable artist, the internal with the external.
The “you” in these poems is uncertain and generic, whether conjured or real, and may in some stretches of imagination, be a direct address to the reader. After all, the entire book is concerned with the transmission, reception, and distortion of ideas and experiences, much like an old pair of bunny ear picking up a faint signal among the cosmic dust and static of the mind, projecting something that will always be incomplete in it’s clarity, a corruption of the ideal. The speaker says in the tenth poem, “I repeat myself, but every repetition is imperfect,” and in same way, the subject of these poems, the “you,” remains partially realized, a hazy picture that, the closer the speaker gets, the further the representation from reality. Whoever the “you” is—a lover, a friend, the reader—they are only whole in their detachment; the one thing for certain is their looming unattainability.
It’s no surprise then that the most curious contradiction, and perhaps the unavoidable truth, of Thorson’s book is that it begins, not in media res, but with the ending, with a story that never had a chance. The other half of the speaker’s life has already left, the groves of orange trees have been cut down, the ship has left its moorings, and the island, which the speaker inhabits, seems to be in a perpetual state of dusk. In the first poem of the collection, the speakers says, “I’d rather tell you a better story, but/ disease and boredom and a bad connection/ brought that plan to night,” establishing a frame of reference for reading the rest of the book.
Immediately, the speaker is recognizing her own shortcomings, her own “bad connection” or distorted signals, the likes of which run obsessively rampant throughout the collection. Furthermore, this first poem gives the reader a litany of images that reoccur like “unnumbered stars”: spiders, tourists, ships, orphans, a Zenith television, satellites, and, of course, oranges. In this way, this single poem acts as a map for the rest of the collection, the blueprint for a complete structure, the book in simulacrum. From the very beginning, Applies to Oranges is mere statuary.
According to the speaker, all we are allowed to retain is the husk of experience, and memory, or language itself, is a recursive gesture meant to “build life backwards.” In the seventeenth poem, the speaker describes a world where “islanders/seek smaller islands in which to examine/ their predicament in miniature” as a process of simplification and understanding, but ultimately an act of distortion and falsehood, “a backwards, inexorable flow,” much like the orphans in the twenty-seventh poem who hock snow globes by the piers or the television shows the speaker watches. But as frivolous an act as this, the speaker still believes that “endings are always a form/ of return” the way that “the stumps/ remember being trees.” In this tropical world of absence and endgames the speaker finds that “nothing/ can be lost and everything is gained.”
Likewise, because of their misplaced or nonexistent identity, the orphans are constantly engaged in scheming. In one poem, the orphans want to turn “the rusty wharves into a perfect replica/ of an ancient Roman forum.” In others they are carving “inspirational sayings…into clam shells” or burying “pottery shards” they’ll unearth and sell as “new antiquities.” With no past to speak of, the orphans are trying to create a new one. They are working on building, out of nothing, a new, marketable history, one that they can show the world, one replete with architecture, language, and culture. But in true hypocritical fashion this self-preservation, or rejuvenation rather, is motivated by personal gains, specifically those of the monetary type. Each scheme they have is just that, a scheme, “durable lies” meant to entertain the tourists as much as prosper the islanders. It’s “a story that gives everyone a cut.” Similar to the speaker, the orphans rely on artifice for survival; it is their coping mechanism.
One noticeable conflict arises throughout the collection. Several times the speaker reflects on the tension between nature and man, or symbols of human civilization: “I hear the Zenith’s test pattern drowned/ in birdsong.” In fact, the television set plays a vital part in how the speaker perceives her surroundings. Like the old Zenith, the speaker is the medium through which the external world is expressed, or visualized. She is a satellite catching and relaying signals in the ether that “contains only satellites, machines/ sending sounds to other machines.” And again, just like the old Zenith her reception is spotty. Images get mixed, orange switches from fruit to color, noun to adjective. An actress screams on the television and “the stars also/ tremble toward stillness.” When these wires are crossed, the world the speaker is describing becomes untrustworthy, the distance between what is intended and what is seen expands, “the darkness deepens, there are lights/ in every machine. Their agonizing flicker–/ the autobiography of space.”
If the old Zenith television is a metaphor for how the speaker receives the world, it is also a source of disassociation. The speaker lives a mash-up life of “50’s B-grade sci-fi, complete/ with theremin,” newscasters, and “a talk show host/ who tells her guest to let it all out.” Even her vocabulary begins to adopt the jargon of pop culture: “buddy,” “kiddo,” “shoutout,” and “Houston, you’ll have to go it alone.” A cinematic lexicon as well: “cut to,” “hi-res,” “close up,” and “big screen beauty.” In a way, the speaker is attaching meaning to these words and phrases, trying to acquire a place in the world the best she knows how, to make this language her own and to create the past as a reinvention of personal history. And yet the speaker realizes the futility, that her words are “a river without an other side.”
Furthermore, if the speaker is the mechanism through which chaos is framed, time and distance measured, and experience formed, then she too will be drowned out by birdsong. Her voice will fail to accurately represent the true nature of things; reality will inevitably become skewed and obscured. In fact, she is aware of this predestined failure, and the ways with which we facilitate it, how we conceal “our feelings in the greenery/ and when the greenery whistl[es],/ we set our phasers to terminate/ and…/ [make] sure no word escap[es].” The speaker forms no assumptions about her imagination or her control over the world, but she remains bound by an unquestionable devotion. She would speak, perhaps, as an escape, “If [she’d] known what ‘escape’ signifies,” reinforcing the futile and contradictory landscape of the poems.
A unifying principle of Applies to Oranges, and the surest way the speaker finds to retain a foothold in an unstable world, is the repetition of certain images. It would be difficult to go through an entire discussion of Thorson’s collection without addressing the fact that the word “orange” appears in every one of the fifty-nine poems, that is except for poem fifty-six. The orange in this collection is more than just the fruit or a color; it is a talisman that takes the shape of the speaker’s will. The orange is more still life than life, more brushstroke than plumage. However, the orange is also a stand-in for the speaker, a way of translating her experiences, even sensual impressions, into manageable concepts: “when I opened/ like an orange, as a child might open it–/ thumbs in, fingers splayed,/ and then the whole thing rips apart.”
In addition, the speaker recognizes the uselessness of this association, that no matter how fervently she strives for a connection “equivalent exchange of minerals/won’t bring me oranges, either of us closer/ mend any gap.” What is most tragic about the speaker’s predicament is her knowledge thereof and her resignation to “extravagant gesture, diaries, bonfires,” her reliance on what she knows, and values, as false. But in Applies to Oranges, Truth is a matter of persuasion and theatrics, and vision is all style. “Tell the satellites they’re licked,” says the speaker in poem fifty-seven, “there’s more/ here than a billion bits could relay.”