A conversation with Trace, by Simone Muench
Winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition
Black Lawrence Press, 2014
(here entered by EIL poetry editor, Kathleen Kirk)
I’ve been reading Trace, by Simone Muench, one of our feature poets here at EIL, and so has Sandy Longhorn, another EIL poet. Sandy wrote about Trace in her wonderful writing-life blog, Myself the Only Kangaroo Among the Beauty. The title of Sandy’s blog is a phrase by Emily Dickinson, describing herself in a letter to an editor, and so you see a conversation among poets has really already begun.
Trace is a set of centos, each titled “Wolf Cento,” as in Muench’s EIL feature. A cento is a poem made up of lines or phrases from other poems, from the Latin cento, meaning “patchwork.” A full-length book of Wolf Centos is forthcoming from Sarabande Books, where Muench is said to be “able to place poets in conversation with each other across centuries and across continents.” The poets pieced together in Trace are listed alphabetically in the back of the book. In the EIL feature, the poets are named directly under each poem, but we don’t know exactly which words belong to which poet. And in Longhorn’s discussion of the cento, that question about attribution haunts her, as it does me. How do we best credit the poets we access in a cento?
Before we try to answer, it might be good to remember that the cento as a poetic form has been around for a long time, all the way back to the second century, according to Ron Padgett in The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms. “In the fifth century a cento was written on the life of Christ, with every line borrowed from the Greek poet Homer, whose work was created at least 900 years before Christ!” Suddenly I want to pun: how do we make [centos] sense of this?!
Seriously, though, how do we fully honor the voices in the ongoing conversation made by centos? I don’t know. I hope you’ll enter the conversation about this by commenting below or at Sandy Longhorn’s blog. Trace itself offers an insight on this in the phrase “[i]mpossible to be alone / in language,” from the poem beginning, “When tenderness seems tired,” acknowledging that language itself is a shared symbol system, created by many minds and voices, many people and their yearnings to connect. Anything we write might be an echo of someone else’s yearning, even their phrasing. Ah, the anxiety of influence! In Trace, the lines and fragments of other poems are like a trail of blood in the snow, evoking the wolf as predator and also the human hunter.
The cover art for Trace reinforces the idea of using poets’ lifeblood to create a path. Titled The Scribe, it shows an elaborate yet delicate apparatus attached to a human hand, indeed tracing a line of blood through snow. The blood comes through transparent medical tubes winding up the arm. This art is a collaboration by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, their last name resembling a collage. Perfect, yes?
The patchwork poetry of Trace creates a snowy other world, with wolves, of course, but also “blue animals” and a she-wolf in particular. Sometimes the wolf is the world, sometimes a cloud, sometimes a life. “I saw my life a wolf loping along the road— / a glint of bone, visible & then gone.” On every page, there’s some marvelous gesture or image: “Facedown, / I lick away the footprints.” Everywhere is a sense of loss: “Nothing remains of you.” Suddenly, though, in a scary forest or city, there might be a beautiful surprise:
I’ll take whatever breaks down
beneath its own sad weight—
felled trees in broken speech,
the ravaged sclerotic hearts
of animals perishing, houses burning.
What is ruined rises up
with dark blue pebbles & heliotropes.
I hope you’ll seek out Simone Muench’s wolf centos here at Escape Into Life and in Trace (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and Wolf Centos (Sarabande Books, 2014, forthcoming) and join the conversation.
But to give Muench (or someone other than me) the last word here, I’ll offer this mysterious line from a wolf cento: “There is no wolf, of course—“