The Wilderness: New and Selected Poems 1980-2016
by Maurya Simon
Red Hen Press, 2018

Maurya Simon’s The Wilderness: New and Selected Poems 1980-2016 (Red Hen Press 2018, 218 pages) represents a life of questioning and perception, whether the scene is a backyard or a street in Bangalore or the ekphrastic poems of The Weavers or reflections on sinners and saints. Her life has encompassed years in India, fellowships in Rome, and an unconventional childhood in Europe when her parents followed James Baldwin’s example and left for Paris.

Simon’s poetry does not shout or rant. It’s not transgressive, though it doesn’t shy away from the physical or the distressing. It’s a quiet, reflective, lyric voice, one that’s easy to overlook in the current poetic clamor, but one that deserves to be read for the deep insight and beauty it brings to the poetic landscape. It includes selections from eight volumes and about 20 newer, uncollected poems that come together to form a rich tapestry.

From the first poem in the volume, “Questions My Daughters Asked Me, Answers I Never Gave Them,” the reader is taken in by the sly wit of this engaging poet. Here is number 6:

What lies beyond death?

A fever of unknowing, a match-head
struck in the darkness of the void.
A blue door without a handle
that suddenly swings open…

The voice that emerges in this work displays a talent for the descriptive phrase; Simon’s poetry explores each moment for meaning in the every day. With a wonderful, rhythmic music, she describes babies as “Double-chinned or fine-fingered, / web-toed, chagrined malingerers, despoilers of diapers, night / balkers, day squawkers.” In her offbeat poems on punctuation, you find one of many couplets on the semicolon “it must have emerged like a comet’s long tail from behind the hulk of thought / Isadora’s scarf trailing her neck, before being pulled taut.” Her description of ravens as “pitch-blackened suits, / Loud envoys from the realm of the dead” and “obsidian flints” will stay with me as has Mary Oliver’s description of crows as “thieves of the small job.” And like Oliver’s. Simon’s work is musical, often transcendental. But the spirit behind the pen displays a broader knowledge of myth, of history, of place and the panoply of saints than I can remember seeing in any living poet other than Robert Hass. In this volume you might encounter King Midas, Anubis, Pandora, Hieronymus, and a flock of narrative poems on St. Jerome and St. Paula. But whatever the topic, Simon is interested in “This thing called soul, this mirage / pricking my nerves with gall.” From one book to another, the scene and subject varies, but the cumulative weight is of a fine mind finding poetry wherever it lands.

A particular pleasure of this volume is that Red Hen press reproduced the images in The Weavers in full color. These paintings, done by Simon’s mother, the artist Biala Goldenthal, sparked verse responses that are as intricate and memorable as the images themselves. The production values of this volume as a whole are an unusual pleasure, it is tasteful, beautifully designed, a book to linger in at one’s leisure.

Perhaps because of years spent in India, where the contrasts of poverty and comfort present themselves daily, Simon faces and probes her relative privilege long before “white privilege” became a common poetic theme. Even in an early book (The Golden Labyrinth, 1995), she notes in her sonnet, “Karma”:

I know my own easy health, my unclever luck
for gain are even more ephemeral than Self.
Reincarnate, I become what’s most loath to me:
palsied whore, brutish pimp, murderer, pariah.

Simon never separates herself from what distresses her; the poem ends: “the appalling strangers I meet are myself.” She doesn’t close herself off to the deformed, the spiteful, the lumps of indigestible substance that often seem to make up the world. Instead she pounds them in the mortar of her craft to help us envision and accept them.

Simon’s skillful use of form and assonance and rhyme are so subtle here as to be invisible, like a consummate tightrope walker who makes it seem as if the wire were steady underneath. Images like “the world spins on atop its tipped axis,” “suspending /o ur heavy lives in the honeyed lapses,” and “this clenched world, its lyres and lies, its comfortlessness,” display both aptness and exactness while filling the ear with sound.

Given the range and the skill on display in this volume, it’s a shame it has received so little notice. But there’s time to correct that. Although poetry volumes often appear and fade in a year, this one should be here to last.

Meryl Natchez
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