A review of Maureen Thorson's 'Applies to Oranges'
The experience of loss most often presents itself in the form of sensitivities: not just to the vacant space formerly taken up by the missing object — a beloved, an earlier way of life, a prized possession — but also to the environment we see on a daily basis. Almost immediately, the sense of deprivation starts to seek a new wholeness. The mind of the mourner looks around, attaching new weight and firmness to the previously inconsequential. In this sense, the rhetoric of the elegy is one of filling a void — looking for pattern, discovering surprising beauty in the trivial, and, most often, leaning on the power of utterance. We make speech and look for the patterning of language as a way of seeking a new totem, a new love that can replace what’s missing.
You took off
with the oranges and spiders,
the endings and the plot, and left me
with the Zenith’s chrome housing,
the cruise ships in their moorings.
The tender tourists with their trinkets
and tight-fisted maps. The orphans
and beachheads, so lovelorn and solemn.
The satellites’ red signals. The hotel’s
common gestures. Once you were gone,
there were only these few things left. (1)
Maureen Thorson’s first book, Applies to Oranges, functions as a project of elegy: a lyric sequence that tracks the speaker through a period of grief into a new semblance of wholeness. Located on a nameless tropical island, the poems inventory “these few things left” as the speaker moves through solitude and grapples with loss. At times the language is restrained, grafting the speaker’s interior state onto the environment that surrounds her: “Three months on, the stumps / remember being trees, waving in the wind” (14). Elsewhere, the sentiments of grief are directly owned: “I gather / your fallen phrases and soak in them / until my skin is wet with promises / that only one of us believed” (33).
Yet, as its title suggests, Applies to Oranges also maintains a consistent self-consciousness of the processes of language and of representation. The voice in these poems allows for the sentimental through the familiar rhetoric of loss: things used to be this way, and now they have changed. All the while, though, Thorson animates the poems with the awareness (and suspicion) of the linguistic mechanisms of mourning, like a grieving lover who can say, “I know everyone says this when they’ve lost someone, but …”
The object in Thorson’s title is the primary device for acknowledging the always-familiar in the language of loss. The word “orange” appears in nearly every one of the fifty-nine lyrics in the book. As a result, the elegiac process is thoroughly conscious of its own fruit: something is growing into fullness here, as the speaker gradually gains emotional strength after the beloved’s departure.
But still, a tension suffuses. The orange becomes a peculiar floating ghost throughout the book. It has considerable totemic value, but it is also estranged from its meaning. The very fact that the reader quickly learns to expect oranges on each page erodes the signification of the word. Orange. And consequently, this repetition becomes a value in itself: as when we seek comfort in loss, the words mean little, but saying them, over and over, is crucial.
Thorson’s grace with rhetorical strategies is immediately visible in her title. The phrase “apples to oranges” suggests the need to compare things, but also the inherent failure of doing so — the objects are not equivalent, so likening them is false. And the applying of “orange” to each of these poems performs a drama of repetition, intending to grapple with loss through the word’s very superabundance.
The arc of Thorson’s book runs its course from sadness to a new fulfillment, in keeping with the elegiac tradition. The act of consolation seems to have worked. But more alarming is the new absence that replaces it. By performing such an elaborate study of repetition, Thorson draws attention to another loss, as language risks the bleeding away of sense. In the end, these poems may elegize the words themselves, as they fall away from meaning.
At first, heartbreak made me beautiful.
My skin fluoresced. I hypnotized trees.
The orphans followed me around town,
drunk on my pain. I ate only my own
hunger, gave off a scent like bitter oranges
or chlorine. Loss left me strangely whole,
as if my sadness, were it strong enough,
could turn your ship around. That was back
when I aged. Now, like an astronomer
who seeks no first causes, but only to map
the connections pinned out over the sea,
I want to diagram the light that shines out
through the holes you pricked into me. (6)
The process of reading Applies to Oranges, at least at first, is a peculiar form of self-awareness. As soon as the patterning of “orange” on every page becomes evident, the reader’s focus begins to waiver: it is harder to pay attention to the content of the individual poem when you need to keep your eye on the single word that moves and flits around, that hides itself in the tall grass of the lyric. Like a callow reader who peeks at the end of the book prematurely to know what happens, one can’t help, upon turning to each new poem, first looking for where “orange” will show up. The reader becomes that edgy, partial person who mourns and awaits the return of the single, critical element to the island of each page.
For that expectant reader/lover, nothing else seems to matter. Thorson’s lyrics cleverly endanger themselves: for awhile, the reader can’t give full attention to any of the other rich substances in the poems — not the “horse opera” played on the Zenith television, not the orphans selling snow globes of “the whole island made in miniature,” not even the table “where / a hardbacked Sonnets from the Portuguese / stands idly tented in its orange binding” (37, 27, 19).
But gradually, the reader’s attention returns to the substance of the poem, to the actual world growing full on the page. One comes to notice the precious word as it recurs, without being arrested by it. Still, though, through repetition, “orange” can never again be a proper sign. Its recurrence makes an absence: the reader becomes too conscious of its artificiality, too aware that it arrives here, on the page, against its will. Orange — as fruit, as color — is no longer active in the poem; not in itself, at least. It becomes a shadow of its meaning, a shell — or peel, perhaps — the albedo of its former light.
The more time Thorson spends on the word, the more one wonders whether it is out of love, or out of hate. What can we do with this word any more? How can we use it again? But there may be a reason here, too. There is a freedom that comes when the sign breaks down from overuse. This, in a way, may be a stratagem for untangling oneself from the attachment to a lover: as if saying the name until it’s robbed of meaning might rescue one from love.
In his work on the elegy, Peter Sacks has suggested that one of the primary functions of repetition in the poetry of loss is as anáklisis, or “leaning-upon.” Thus, the bereaved finds a new thing to attach to, in lieu of the lost love-object, as “a form of verbal ‘propping.’” While typically in elegy this work is performed by repeating the name of the beloved, Thorson circumvents this act of consolation, and moves straight into repeating the name of the stand-in. “Orange” is, in a sense, the name of the lost love, but it is also an absence. The word is used with full knowledge that it marks the spot that can’t be filled on the page, giving name to the unnamable. The speaker in Applies to Oranges simultaneously repeats herself in order to recover from the loss of the beloved, and repeats something other, as a way of getting out from under the weight of the beloved’s name.
This strategy is highly successful in terms of the character’s arc in the book. The early lyrics are etched with a sense of emotional deprivation: either in “a memory that won’t fade away” or in dreams of revenge: “I am reading up on horticulture and boats. / I am making a plan of attack” (14, 20). After the mention of “forgiveness” in the exact middle of the series, the speaker’s process of healing becomes more evident, admitting to “what I said or failed to say,” and finally acceding to “the demand that I get up and go” (39, 48).
But at the same time that the voice in the poems seems to recover, another element drains away. The elegiac use of repetition saves the speaker, but perhaps at the cost of the words themselves. This demise is inevitable: when we say a word too many times, its meaning blurs and breaks, even if its musicality heightens. We lose the sense for what we say in saying it over and over. And, while that loss might be a welcome one to the mourning lover, who needs to shed a certain skin, it carries with it a flouncing of language’s ability to mean.
Thorson is deftly aware of this bait-and-switch. In one poem she refers to her “handbook on the mechanics of gloom,” providing rules and methods for herself: “it shows exactly / how to ratchet up the melancholy / by accumulating neutral symbols” (29). But how long can symbols remain neutral, before their repetition bleeds them empty?
We’ve found cracked gray pictures
gummed in albums, and stripped
them slowly, fed them to a fire
of blue-then-orange flames. We’ve
all hid our feelings in the greenery
and when the greenery whistled,
we set our phasers to terminate,
and — no quarter asked, none given —
made sure no words escaped. (34)
Elsewhere, when not destroying the words, she sends their meaning packing, shipping it off into the ether, much as the beloved has abandoned the speaker:
I resolve to exploit
these mnemonic boxes, their tapes
and reels and electric sparks, to transfer you
from one tune to another, spinning
like an orange into the cosmos,
lonely locus for twisting in the wind,
for recalling all the anger I can sing. (47)
The strategy is a sound one, but it means death to certain faculties of language. Thorson’s poems move from observing the absence that she describes through language to acknowledge instead the absence within language itself. The sense of loss within the self is transferred to the medium of speech, and the loss now must be carried by language, with a hole where the meaning of orange used to be.
This is a masterful alchemy, albeit a frightening one. While Thorson plays with and gives in to the conventions and the succoring powers of the elegy, she also laces the form with its own destruction. What happens, then, if in order to shrug off the weight of one’s own loss, one must transfer that absence into language? What if the means by which we heal ourselves is to make a hole in meaning? Thorson’s sequence posits a chilling idea: that perhaps our own capacity to communicate — to love, to make poetry — is constantly being harmed by the losses we endure. In the end, the remainders in the poem are oddly ambivalent: “the things that fail are the only things that stay” (59).