Phoebe Journal reviews Cartographies

Cartographies Maurya Simon. Red Hen (CDC, dist.) $18.95 (104p) ISBN 978-1-59709-387-3

Maurya Simon's resume reads like that of a literary superstar. Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 and the Pushcart Prize in 2004, she has held residencies, won awards and has been granted numerous fellowships both domestically and abroad. The author of eight volumes of poetry, she has been published in a host of anthologies and has written in such publications as The New York Times Sunday Book Review, The Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review, Pegasus and The Georgia Review.

So it is with much disappointment that her latest collection, Cartographies: Uncollected Poems 1980-2008 arrives as her latest contribution to belle letters. It's not that the book lacks substance or that the poems contained within are lacking. In fact, overall, it is just the opposite: Simon's commitment to formalism and her depth of insight are prevalent throughout. However, the book is uneven, with some extremely powerful poems juxtaposed against others which, despite their formal elements, are weak and sometimes uninteresting.

"City of Angels" (p.78), for instance, a dark poem written in rhyming couplets, strikes of discordance with its sing-songy rhythms.

Night beyond our wooded deck is murderous.

Pandemonium erupts in static bursts:

The radio's high voices pitch themselves in waves

Of terror through the nervous house, and we, adaze,

Can only shake our heads in disbelief, certain

That before evening's curtain drops its tattered hem,

The city of angels will have fallen hellishly to ash

Each palm and signpost flaming like a giant, struck match.

Against the poem's rhymes, both full and slanted, lies a discourse that meshes hope for the child who appears a little later in the poem and whose future is unpredictable and fraught with uncertainty. The subject matter of this poem seems very much out of place with its formal structure, its cadence and its unambiguous rhyming distracting from its bleak message.

Perhaps this is the point. Perhaps Simon wants us to experience the innocence of childhood despite the doom and gloom of the real world. Yet the rhymes (waves/adaze, collapse/lapses, comfortlessness/blessedness) and the meter distract from the poem rather than add to it. And these same elements are repeated throughout the book to the same end in such poems as "Second Born," "Simon Says," "On Our Twentieth Anniversary" and "Revival.

Contrast these poems to those such as "Waste Management" and "Trees" where formalism informs rather than distracts. Here is the first stanza from "The Woodpecker" (p.63):

sounds like a donkey braying

or a madman laughing

from the depths of his grave.

Hee-haw, hee-haw, he says.

Here, the slanted end rhymes are far from distracting and, in fact, stir interest in the reader. The lines are at once descriptive and imitative of the woodpecker's incessant hammering, and the preponderance of the "h's and the two trochees and one iamb in the last line of the stanza break away from the rhythm of the first three and add to this onomatopoeic quality.

Likewise, in "Waste Management" (p.62), Simon uses language to imitate the effect of a lumbering bear rummaging through garbage for his next meal. Here, she makes use of long lines and words with sounds that weigh heavily on the tongue, such as "forage," "fragrant" and "trudging," to further her characterization. Quatrains balance the poem out, preventing the use of such rich language from encumbering the reader and, when Simon does employ end rhymes, they are almost unnoticeable.

One wishes that the entire book was made up completely of such poems and that the other, less interesting ones could be done away with. This would have made for a more solid, more interesting collection. Perhaps the weaker poems were included to round out the four sections of the book" "The Soul," The Self," "The World : Mountains," and "The World : City," though that would hardly be valid justification. The book could have been a lot stronger had they been eliminated. Overall, however, Cartographies is worth reading and leaves one hopeful that the next collection will fully exhibit Simon's mastery of her craft.

— Mike Maggio