Wolf Centos by Simone Muench

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Mysterious images and oracular phrases from Simone Muench’s poems have floated through my waking and dreaming life for years.

A bit of backstory: Though I have never met Muench in person, she was the editor who wrote to me that my first poem was going to be published by Another Chicago Magazine in 2004. Muench didn’t know it was my first poetry publication—or how over the moon I was to receive her email—but fearing perhaps this was all an elaborate hoax, I googled her to be sure she was who she said she was. (Oh me of little faith!) Then, I started reading her poems. Then, I started composing a list of all the words whose meanings I came to learn because I had encountered them in a collection of Muench’s poems. There were eighteen such words from Lampblack & Ash alone.

In August 2014, Sarabande Books will release Muench’s sixth collection, Wolf Centos. I read an advanced copy of the book during a turbulent flight last month, turning to the first poem just as we rose above the Atlantic Ocean. All anxious airplane chatter receded to the background, and this poem lifted off in tandem with the plane, seeming to chronicle the scene at hand: “Maybe the whole world is absentminded / or floating. The flower, the weather / the room empties its mind of me, / the sea-pulse of my utterance.” I love it when this happens—when a poem matches my internal impression of a moment—but also enlarges that moment to panorama, and deepens it, too, like drilling into a dark cavity and striking some bright, impenetrable gold.

I didn’t notice at first that all the poems in this book are titled “Wolf Cento” or that there are 47 poems or that they are deftly arranged into four sections. I didn’t pause to count and marvel at the number of sources that gird this capacious instantiation of the cento form. (186 authors are represented here, in case you’re wondering.) In the second poem, the reader is told: “you have a seventh / sense.” I kept this pronouncement in mind. It set me to mulling, as Muench’s poems invariably do. My other senses, the ones I knew about, were already keened and reeling. As I read, I realized that Muench was singing in every sensory register at once. Here, I’ll show you what I mean:

Aural Song: What a “Wolf Cento” sounds like: “A wasp sonata slip[ping] through the house,” “the last word still tender on the eardrum,” “wolf-howling to the west,” “the echo of a shadow,” “an airplane whistling from another world”

Gustatory Song: What a “Wolf Cento” tastes like: “raw meat,” “a cold drink before sunset,” “exquisite / as wolf’s milk,” “doe’s tears,” “the red silence of your mouth,” “sweet vowels”

Olfactory Song: What a “Wolf Cento” smells like: “rain,” “lemon trees,” “fouled landscape that’s sunk into itself,” “the poppy that no girl’s finger has opened”

Tactile Song: What a “Wolf Cento” feels like: “an inflamed throat,” “Pentecostal shivers,” “the hull of a dream,” “a southern damp,” “a gun in your mouth,” “the fever of the banished”

Visual Song (a): What a “Wolf Cento” looks like in color: “the coastline’s pink,” “a red band of mist,” “dark orange trees,” “green zone of morning,” “the blue door I walk through”

Visual Song (b): What a “Wolf Cento” looks like in black and white: “white trigonometries” and “black champagne”

Kinesthetic Song: How a “Wolf Cento” moves: “like dizzy horses,” “full gallop, at vertiginous speed,” like a “black waltz,” like “a girl stretching / barefoot on the edge of a knife”

All the senses are present and accounted for in these poems, and what’s more—they are sinuously intertwined. Muench weaves the found language of nearly two hundred voices, ancient and modern, living and dead, into a cat’s cradle of sound-taste-smell-touch-sight-proprioception. Here, I’ll show you what I mean, the seamless ubiquity and unity of all six senses. From the eleventh “Wolf Cento,” second stanza:

Open my ears & let your frenzy enter
relentlessly, like a blind machine,
like a sea captain who doesn’t trust the stars,
carried off by an unsteady boat.
My life, this shirt I want to take off—
what can’t be said is the dark meat,
seeking your mouth in another’s mouth,
the whispered cries of animals without sleep.

Oh, and did I mention about the stars? They are everywhere in this book, tossing their light, as omnipresent as the wolves, as illuminating and ungraspable as language itself. They appear in the first cento as “a shrug of stars,” and so the beguiling image system grows. The “evidence collects beneath the cancelled stars.” We are the evidence, I think. We are also the wolves. “The buzzard stops and becomes a star now.” We are the buzzards, too, I think. At what point do we become stars? Then, “a star in its syllable socket” appears, so like a word—intractable and burning, intimate and remote. These poems are stars, which sometimes answer to other names, take on other likenesses: “a black question mark crops up in the sky” (it is a star); “a bundle of keys gleaming” (they are stars); “the strangers we grow into” (as intractable and burning, as intimate and remote as stars). All the senses are imbricated here, and all the images, too.

Oh, and did I mention about the unfamiliar words? They are stars of this book as well, tossing their light, reminding me that I also read to expand my lexical sensibilities. One of my favorite word-discoveries from this book is deliquescence, meaning “the process by which a substance absorbs moisture from the atmosphere until it dissolves in the absorbed water and forms a solution.” My poem-mind says, “Okay, but show me,” and the poet does:

from the thirty-third “Wolf Cento,” second stanza:

so many words that rise
like skeleton larks & wolves of penumbra.
So many. We shall have to mourn.
Sweet deliquescence gaping wide.

Now I experience the meaning of the word with all my senses.

Another of my favorite word-discoveries from this book is fasciculated. Spellcheck checks but doesn’t recognize it. From the noun fasciculation, it can mean a “small contraction of a muscle, often visible beneath the skin” or “an arrangement into bundles.” My poem-mind says, “I appreciate the multi-valence, but show me,” and the poet does:

from the twenty-third “Wolf Cento,” fourth stanza:

Nor could I recognize you in the haze
with a plain face hiding thousands
of other faces, fasciculated, beautiful.

Now I experience the meaning of the word with all my senses. I feel the faces twitching. I picture the faces bundled.

So what about that mysterious seventh sense? I have been mulling and mulling as I read the book through again the way Muench herself has described. I read in the space “between trance & logic,” which is perhaps the best way to explore any collection of poems, any work of art. I pause again on the eleventh “Wolf Cento,” that partial line: what can’t be said. Maybe the seventh sense is that awareness of what is known beyond expression. The poet’s paradox is to attempt to articulate that awareness, accepting that such articulations are inherently incomplete. Muench is singing in this register also, giving voice to this awareness that is both within and beyond her. Here, I’ll show you what I mean:

from the fourteenth “Wolf Cento,” fifth through seventh stanzas:

beyond my anxiety, beyond

my mouth & its words,
the peach glows reddish among leaves
under the sun’s semaphore

& dark deciphering of bird flight,
its acid, secret symmetry.

Carole Maso, another poet who reaches for the stars in this way, once wrote, “I wish my hand might touch the fire / between the letters of the alphabet.” That fire, those stars. I believe Muench has touched the elusive fire here, in her book of seven senses, of 186 sources, of numerous wolves and uncountable stars and “vows burning like constellations / of drunken fireflies.” May these images and phrases float through your waking and dreaming life for years to come.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 volumes of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including the newly released poetry collection, Skirted (The Word Works, 2021), the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the limited-edition, hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2020), which won the inaugural Hunger Mountain Chapbook Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. More from this author →