“I see you striding through the down / and dust, blood spattered on your ankles, / your thin dress folding around your knees. / You’ve got an orange in each pocket, / and you walk by death with your head / held high, into the house and its shadow.” Iris Cushing reviews Maureen Thorson’s book of poetry Applies to Oranges.
Remember the kind of earth-map that’s made from a flattened orange peel? The skin transforms from sphere to plane, from organic waste to microcosm. Maureen Thorson’s Applies to Oranges embodies the do-it-yourself economy of such a map. In this collection of fifty-nine untitled prose poems, nothing is wasted; indeed, it is the remains, what’s left over after the fruits of joy have been consumed or lost, that gives the work its vision.
The book circles around a small vocabulary of images—oranges, spiders, a Zenith television, a tropical island reminiscent of the musical South Pacific. “Once you were gone, there were only these few things left,” ends the first poem, leading the way into a fractured story that tantalizingly begins with an ending. A sense of loss suffuses the book, so much that the text itself seems a trace of something that has passed, persistent as “a photograph I can’t put down, / a memory that won’t fade away.”
“I repeat myself, but every repetition is imperfect,” begins the tenth poem. The word “orange” appears in each piece; this investigative repetition has the effect of further estranging an already-strange hybrid word. At once adjective and noun, orange has no rhymes. It is the color of both hazmat suits and fire. In the context of the book’s water-bound locales, one can’t help but think of oranges as the sailor’s protection from scurvy, a constant reminder that land is nowhere in sight. At about twelve lines each, more or less, each poem appears to be both unique and just like all the others, like a sack of oranges.
The cover of Applies to Oranges is aptly blue, a color that appears as a counterpoint to orange throughout the collection. By the blue light of the Zenith television screen, the speaker of these poems witnesses the goings-on of orphans and tourists in a parallel location, a place where “young men / the color of graham crackers pad down / the sugar sand to test the water with their bodies.” The Zenith—whose corporate namesake innovated the remote control—comes to represent the idea of signals received from outside.
As Jack Spicer wrote, “The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a counterpunching radio.” The poet behind Applies to Oranges may be a sort of radio; the book’s isolated narrator continually sends, receives, and interprets signals. These signals are altered, however, by intrusions from the narrator’s inner and outer worlds:
I hear the Zenith’s test pattern drowned
in birdsong, in the shadow of some shift
in the system. Blue signifiers—the ocean,
its downbeats, its tides and spirals that glide.
You once read them as instructions: Escape.
If I’d known what “escape” signified.
The analog technology of this particular world is often cast as damaged or even non-existent. This is a place where “the radio plays / different stations, and you have no radio”; where “twilight reflects terrible intentions— / the cord’s been cut from the phone.” Fragmented cultural references creep in to many of the poems like stray bits of a broadcast: “If there’s a problem from here on, / Houston, you’ll have to go it alone.”
Throughout the book, Thorson wields language in a way that is perhaps more tender than the idiomatic word-play implied by the book’s title. The title does point to the idea of comparing two unlike things, which makes sense for a collection so full of near-opposites: orange and blue, water and land, technology and nature. These oppositions define each other. The difference between them becomes the distance between the narrator and all that’s been lost. This book reminds us that any text, no matter how compelling, is not the same as the tangible world: that the orange-peel map, while accurate, is a mere stand-in for planet Earth. As a document of absence, Applies to Oranges is as real and particular as can be. Even South Pacific, a musical full of goofy songs and questionable depictions, contains its own beautiful elegy to absence with the song “This Nearly Was Mine.” With Applies to Oranges, Thorson sings her own smart, elegant version.