RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — How do you encapsulate several decades of your life?
That was the question for Maurya Simon, professor emerita in the Department of Creative Writing and professor of the Graduate Division at the University of California, Riverside, while putting together her newest book, “The Wilderness: New & Selected Poems, 1980-2016.”
In this career-spanning collection of poetry, Simon presents poems from her previous nine books — two of which were nominees for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award — as well as several new poems published for the first time. “The Wilderness” represents over 30 years of writing, chronicling Simon’s evolution as a poet and showcasing her diverse style and expansive subject matter.
Publishing a book that represents her life’s work took several rounds of revision and restructuring. In all, “The Wilderness” took almost 10 years to come to fruition.
“I like to think that by going through so many versions of the manuscript, I ended up with a book that kind of crystalized who I was as a person then and how I perceived the world as a poet in my 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s,” Simon said.
“The Wilderness” broaches subjects both infinite and infinitesimal, contemplating cosmic forces and commas on an equal scale. Her work stretches across the globe to India and as close as her own home.
In poems that vary from short, lyrical verse to longer narrative constructions, Simon explores the power of language, the mysteries of the natural world, the sacred and the profane, and, as she puts it, “the wilderness that’s both inner states of being as well as the external world.”
“Human beings have very complicated intellectual, emotional, and spiritual lives, and we are so full of mysteries,” she said. “Our inner selves are a kind of wilderness each of us needs to explore and try to understand.”
Each of Simon’s subjects are examined in melodic lines rich with metaphor, and her poems grapple with both large existential questions and the minutia of everyday life — sometimes simultaneously. Careful consideration is given to things often overlooked, like the feral dog on the streets of India in her poem “Ugly Dog,” who sports a “… frescoed- / over plaster face, moldy and crumbling, staring / past the black grief of kings and queens ...” In a selection of poems from her book “A Brief History of Punctuation,” Simon speculates on the origin of typographical marks, giving a kind of cosmic significance to these commonplace symbols, like the question mark that “… grew slowly, atom by atom, curving / its serpentine line around a doubt.”
“We can see the infinite in the miniscule, and in the greater world, the same complexity we see in the microscopic world, and so those things merge for me completely,” she said. “There is such a mirroring, and we find things within ourselves that seem universally true for everyone and everything.”
Most unique about this new collection is that it’s illustrated. The artwork of Simon’s late mother, artist Baila Goldenthal, has graced the cover of several of her books, including her newest. But also within “The Wilderness” is a selection of 15 ekphrastic poems — poems offering vivid descriptions of artwork — paired with paintings from her mother’s “WEAVERS” series. In these poems, Simon constructs narratives for the figures in her mother’s paintings, imagining their internal lives and describing their external surroundings. Elsewhere, the influence of Simon’s mother is evident in her work. She credits growing up in a visually rich and creative culture and her mother’s encouragement with informing her interest in poetry.
“I think maybe in how I see the world is the way she influenced me,” Simon said. “She taught me to be in the world and to see and take note of things that were remarkable or interesting or compelling. I think that she helped me to see what was beautiful in the world.”
Presented chronologically, “The Wilderness” shifts in tone and subject as if evolving along with its author through the years, cataloging her experiences and growing more complex. This is most apparent toward the end of the collection, with Simon’s newest poems serving mostly as elegies and ruminations on what happens after death. The passing of her mother is the subject of several of these poems. In “If I Could” Simon writes, “I'd hold your lifeless hand, Mother, / for as long as it might take to bring an ignition / of life back to it, to you and your girlish body.”
Ultimately, “The Wilderness” serves as a testament to the journey of life — both internal and external — and the perpetual search for meaning. Simon hopes readers will gain understanding about their own lives through her poetry.
“My poems address issues of mortality and faith in the future that the world will go on, and I hope the seeds I planted might regenerate in someone else. These ideas and insights from what I’ve learned in my life — even a small, small insight — I hope they might be a seed for someone else to gain some self-knowledge about the human condition.”
Simon’s previous books include “The Enchanted Room,” “Days of Awe,” “Speaking in Tongues,” “The Golden Labyrinth,” “A Brief History of Punctuation,” “Ghost Orchid,” “WEAVERS,” “Cartographies,” and “The Raindrop’s Gospel: The Trials of St. Jerome & St. Paula, A Novel in Verse.” Her poetry has appeared in over 200 literary magazines and poetry anthologies. Simon’s numerous accolades include an Indo/American Fulbright Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, and the Celia B. Wagner and Lucille Medwick Memorial Awards from the Poetry Society of America. “The Wilderness” is now available through Red Hen Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and Books-A-Million.