Wolf Centos by Simone Muench
Sarabande Books, 2014; 66 pp
Reviewed by Tyler Mills
Simone Muench’s Wolf Centos, her fifth collection of poems, is a dazzling meditation on our interaction with language (whether as writers or readers): how the hunger to locate a presence, perhaps ours, on the page—or screen—can lead us through a wilderness of influences. And, how these influences might become indecipherable from the echo of the voice that calls out into it. The first “Wolf Cento” begins,
Desire discriminates & language
discriminates. Let me lick
your closed eyes: where the landscape
begins in smoke; the blue petals
become a single text,
a wolf in a wilderness of snow. (1-6)
“Cento” means “patchwork” in Latin, the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics reminds us, and is defined as “a verse composition made up of lines selected from the work or works of some great poet(s) of the past.” What Muench has done is compile a book-length sequence of centos that “patches” together snippets from the works of a virtuosic array of writers—from Ibargi Noriko to Anna Swir, Jean Valentine to Melvin Tolson, Jake Adam York to Jean Cocteau—into lyric meditations on language’s transformational power.
In these poetic landscapes, the wolf materializes as a vision that at times has the power to dissolve the self—even as its presence incites the metaphorical language that makes this “I” so gorgeously legible as the “I” of lyric: “I have lost my being in so many beings: / travelers passing by night, the great wolf / who goes wounded & bleeding through the snows” (“Wolf Cento” 16, 1-3). The text of prior poems—merging, blending, and cut loose from their origins—brings forth a hunger for language itself. As the speaker asks in the last “Wolf Cento” of the book, “What do we leave, living? / Always the silence remains kneeling— / each letter a closed house” (1-3). In these poems, an appropriative technique—the cento form—becomes a way to artfully represent a self that continually registers its presence on an aesthetic landscape:
Under somber firs two wolves mingled
their blood, fell into the dense growth,
rustling the submarine foliage of language.
The syllables unearthed, traveling
through flesh into green waves
& all that we touch phosphoresces. (“Wolf Cento” 14, 1-6)
In this “Wolf Cento,” we could read the “two wolves” as driving influences, as prior texts, or as versions of a self. As their “blood” joins while they fight one another, their forms begin “rustling the submarine foliage of language.” What happens? Language becomes visual, sparks: “syllables” happen. When the forest of “somber firs” resonates with language, “all that we touch phosphoresces.” Muench’s Wolf Centos is a tour de force, its fabric stitched with a masterful eye for the visual potential of language—and the recognition of our desire to find a self in it.