The title of Maureen Thorson’s first full-length book Applies to Oranges announces the project’s aesthetic intentions with a sort of typographic pun. At first glance, your brain decodes the title as “Apples to Oranges” and, since you’re most likely an adult with years of experience reading and categorizing, the momentary discordance in discovering the intentional error likely pleases you as much as the first time you walked your stubborn, teenaged eyes up and down M.C. Escher’s infinite staircase to visit his impossible rooms. A sort of double sound pun (where one word sounds like another) for the page, the title readies us for the ways in which Thorson will break apart linguistic categories, subvert the order of things, and refashion the language of loss for her own uses.
We realize from the first lines of the first poem (the first in this book-length series) that Thorson’s squat little poems (most are around 12 lines long) have some heavy lifting to do. We learn that someone close to the speaker has gone away, either dead or missing:
I’d rather tell you a better story, but
disease and boredom and a bad connection
brought that plan to night. You took off
with the oranges and the spiders,
the ending and the plot, and left me
with the Zenith’s chrome housing,
the cruise ships in their moorings.
With the title’s punning in mind, “disease” immediately reads as dis-ease, and thus “a bad connection” takes an existential or psychological tone, and we realize “the ending and the plot” and the bad reception has little to do, really, with electronic cables or signals. We also notice the play on the idiomatic “brought to night [naught].” The “you” who “took off with / the oranges and the spiders” must have walked away with two of the speaker’s cardinal directions, with her way of making sense of the world. “The orphans / and beachheads, … / The satellites’ red signals. The hotel’s / common gestures. Once you were gone, / there were only these few things left,” the opening poem ends. This economically sound poem establishes the series’ matrix of personal symbol. Reading through the series, each mentioning of oranges, spiders, tourists, scheming, imaginative orphans, ships at sea, satellites, and the television set (static, test pattern, or blue) adds to the pattern of recursive expression Thorson weaves from the emotional center of the speaker’s loss.
What, exactly, the speaker has lost is never clear to us, even while the location of her loss remains close-at-hand. She writes:
High in soft mountains, where indigo
is the color of shadow, spiders crawl.
In that place, there is no purpose,
but there is a system that sends me
to the porch at daybreak to watch the mist
dissolve over what used to be oranges,
where I hear the Zenith’s test pattern
drown in birdsong…
The system she refers to here seems to be language and the imagination, maybe even lyric poetry itself, with its ability to transmute the ethereal ugliness of personal trauma into something beautiful and knowable: “The boneless pulsing / that carried you off might return you yet.”
Thorson’s form—the compact, candy bar elliptical poem with medium line-lengths—serves her well throughout. Capitalizing on internal rhyme, consonance and assonance, and utterances sculpted into gorgeous syntactic units by line break and punctuation, her sound work is considerable:
…The Zenith clicks to commercial
and flicks its light across the table, where
a hardbacked Sonnets from the Portuguese
stands idly tented in its orange binding.
Outside, treefrogs sing their one refrain:
it’s night it’s night it’s night.
While reading, I kept hearing the sounds the poems made as various parts of a painting. Often the images (of the moon as “a peeled orange / admiring itself in the darkened river,” for example) combined with the sounds that formed them to complete an experience similar to standing inches away from an abstract representational canvas. Taken in as a whole, however, these sonically laden images create an incomplete picture, which successfully speaks to the aims of Thorson’s project. “I used to tell stories. Things swelled, / and crested. In a word they ended / …No sunsets and no after. Only holes / strung together, a succession of lacks / …its sections more spacious than any story, / too expansive for an ending to take.” Applies to Oranges accomplishes what the best lyric poetry sets out to do: it resists the temptations of resolution and closure. Instead it frees language to sing about the only sure thing, which is the heartache of our world’s impermanence: “the biggest fish, the departing ship, / our house decaying hourly into landscape— / …the things that fail are the only things that stay.”