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Monica McFawn on Rachel M Simon

Theory of Orange

Rachel M. Simon, Pavement Saw Press 

There are many volumes of fine poetry where one could rip out the pages and toss them in the air—their coincidental arrangement upon landing would be no less effective than their arrangement in any book.  Since poems are ultimately self-contained, the order in which they are arranged often evokes the practical arbitrariness of a lineup at the checkout.   Each poem is simply waiting to be seen, and their connection to the poems before and after goes no further than tolerance.  Reading such a book even mimics working at the checkout counter.  Every poem stops briefly, offers up whatever it has, and moves on.  The ultimate experience is simply a series of discrete experiences.

Rachel Simon’s Theory of Orange, however, is a thoughtfully arranged volume that benefits from being thoughtfully arranged. Though each poem works on its own—and was ostensibly written to be on its own—the poems together create a thematic and almost narrative arc.   So strong was this impression that I felt like I needed to “keep my place” when I put the book down—a rare feeling for me when reading poetry.  

Theory of Orange is still a book of poetry, and so the “story” is more abstract than a typical plotline.  The book as a whole seems to be chronicling not a specific event, but instead a shifting sense of time.  Early poems like “Improvisation” are so spontaneous that one could suspect that they quickly arrange themselves on the page just as you’re turning it.  The style of these first poems is as effortless and perfectly timed as a quip, and their topics are equally of the moment.  The first real conversation of a friendship, an epiphany on plane ride, a daydream—the subjects are tiny insular pinpricks on a timeline.

By the middle of the book, time becomes too fraught to blithely inhabit.   As Simon’s poems begin to refer to tragedy and loss, the references to time become more loaded.    The meaning of “Anxiety,” for instance, is all in the tense: 

Soon I’ll take the empty boxes down
and fill them again, trying
to discard all I have
that ties me to the modest trinkets 

of my past perfect lives.

Past perfect refers to something ongoing in the past that stopped in the past.  Such a definition is tough to get one’s mind around in a grammar book, but in Simon’s poem it is completely apt.  “Past perfect lives” is shorthand for the sense that our past is somehow a life apart from us—a birth, life, and death all on an abbreviated timeline.

What’s fascinating about Theory of Orange is that the order of the poems gives these ideas the impulsion of a narrative.  Beyond being just thematically tied, the poems’ arrangement shows how even abstract impressions—such as how we view time—can have a storyline and denouement of their own.  For Simon, her poems reach a poignant climax in “Present Tense,” a poem that imagines the present-moment actions of someone deceased: 

You’re cataloging what you knew
in your life as a gifted kid,

and what you’ve learned since omniscience.

Ironically, Simon’s speaker must step out of his or her present life to imagine a parallel present where the dead go about their business.  The loss of innocence chronicled throughout the book comes not from the implied tragedy, but from the distancing effects of that tragedy on the present.  Simon’s speakers early in the book behave as if suspended in an infinite moment of play, unmoored by any considerations of endings or beginnings.  When the book ends, the momentary has become a mere way station from which to look backwards or away, a dot on a timeline seeing everything but itself.  

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