Along the Iditarod trail, wolf pups steal wooden posts that were planted there to mark the way through the abrupt immenseness of Alaska. The posts become playthings; or they always already were toys to the pups, there for the taking. So Simone Muench approaches her Wolf Centos: She has collected lines and fragments from poems in the world, of 187 writers, and this book is her trove. She proves with each “Wolf Cento” that the meaning-making acts of repurposing language, translating translations, even simply reading, are manifold and unending.
The wolves of the book are recurrent but not always insistent figures; sometimes thematic, sometimes ushers for another thought, sometimes they practically disappear upon entrance into a cento. Muench’s idea for Wolf Centos was partly sustained on her noticing how often wolves appear in the work of poets. Amid this cento form, its piecing-together, a kind of accounting of poetry’s images rises: There is much rose and fire, snow and stars, shadows, doors. The book is awash in red and blue. And then bright flashes: quetzal flowers, Macedonian tobacco, the green zone of morning. A wolf barks.
Muench’s personal attractions are of course at hand in constructing this imaginary. Yet the fact that none of the lines in this book are her own is incredible. Her curation is impeccable; not using more than two lines from a given poem, she makes poetry sing to poetry, searching out, as in one of her quoted Borges lines (translated by Alistair Reid), “what all the music had been hiding.” The placement of the found lines and fragments in their renovated poem-homes produces new stresses on and among them: In-between is her mind at work. “Show them the marks left where you merged,” she quotes from Dara Wier’s “Blue Oxen.” We know the pups steal the posts because some markers are discovered, later, with teeth marks along the material.
Just as every translation renews, Muench recasts the snippets from other poets. There is bountiful good sound and image throughout, but naturally—as within any poem—lines move into and out of prominence, some receiving more rhetorical emphasis than others. In her chat with the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, she said she steered away from culling famous phrases, and instead strove to have lines be almost-recognizable, uncanny. Her littler, quieter lines, placed to aid the progression of individual centos, were still selected out of some preference—they were special to her, they held intrigue. The centos are resultingly very lyrical, and there is a momentousness and memorability in each of the lines and fragments. For me, their footholds in the original poets’ voices are completely loosed; I give over, into the transcendence of her collaging.
One of the greatest pleasures of reading her lines is not just relishing the rhymes she creates in un-cleaving poetry samples from disparate authors, but researching and discovering that they came from disparate authors, often whole countries apart from one line to the next. She reconciles, she unites. The very point of the cento is that the lines and fragments are sourced from past writing, but this vertigo—of the life, the many lives chattering beyond the book—still comes.
I want to tremble, to shudder,
to split apart, to go on.
I cut the last leaf, you were gone.
Here Muench introduces a sentence from Sándor Csoóri, translated by Len Roberts, next to one by Yiannis Ritsos, translated by Edmund Keeley. Hello, Hungary. Hello, Greece. Later, Csoóri meets a fragment from Octavio Paz, in my favorite soundplay of the book (Paz’s is first, translated by Eliot Weinberger):
Solitude sings within its corolla
as though a radio played lowly.
And when Muench leans on original sound, like in a fragment from Gabriela Mistral—“stalled in forgetfulness and salt”—then we remember that that excellent music was born in translation, outside Mistral’s native tongue. Randall Couch, then, is as much a poetic source. What poetry is is put into question, which any good poetry collection will do.
The centos call to one another; sometimes one swings from end to start, as in the last line of the fifteenth cento, “It’s not you I’ve lost” (Ingeborg Bachmann, translated by Mark Anderson), followed by “I have lost my being in so many beings” (Sophia de Mello Breyner, translated by Ruth Fainlight) at the top of the next cento. Two centos apart, beautiful boys recur: First we receive Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s sentence “Beautiful, those boys among the roses,” from her poem “Rome.” Then, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s fragment (translated by Ferlinghetti and Francesca Valente), from his poem “The Day of My Death”: “the beautiful boys will run in that light.” (In Kelly’s poem, the very next line reads “Beautiful, the black wolf.” Curiously, “Rome” is rife with wolf depiction much in the line of Muench’s interest, and I imagined our poet had to have extracted another line from it for use in a different cento, but I could not find one. Perhaps Muench was able to avoid the temptation.)
For all the cohesion necessary to complete the form, Muench described going after surreal dissonance, the strange (“the North Star, the wolf’s fang / troubling me with telegrams” in particular jarred me). Often the last lines detach and send me. But because this poet has preserved the integrity of the lines and fragments, the logic of the words organizes cleanly—also because of her one permitted liberty, to alter punctuation. A result of Muench’s use of the cento form is that the found poetry frequently comes in the shape of a sentence-contained assertion, sometimes islanding images, and this makes the diction of the collection clipped (but, again, consistently momentous). The writing runs, sheds.
We are handed the constantly renewed chance to ponder the difference between a “Wolf Cento” and a “Wolf Cento.” This insistence, alongside alternations of stanza length, of usage of indentations and questions and imperatives, of the presence of an “I,” varies and grows Wolf Centos. The book’s discursivity resides largely in the lovely gaps between lines and fragments, held at just the distance to cohere and estrange. Muench’s attractions and obsessions are their own poetry; I am flown by these centos, and how her puzzled-out, pieced-together, fascinating, deep-deep engagement with other poets has spoken so to our art, our faculty of language.