Susanna Roxman Review of Ghost Orchid

Ghost Orchid by Maurya Simon, Red Hen Press, USA, 80 pp., ISBN 1-888996-84-6

In earlier poetry collections, such as The Golden Labyrinth (University of Missouri Press, 1995), set in India, Maurya Simon explored the physical world. Now she steps across to the very opposite: Ghost Orchid is wholly devoted to religious and metaphysical questions. Today, such a focus in any writer may seem startling, almost daring. I have read this book in a state of total concentration.

Simon is an unusually thoughtful but at the same time playful, innovative poet. Despite her timeless concerns, Ghost Orchid has a wholly contemporary atmosphere. Serious but never solemn, she is basically a questioner as well as a quester.

She loves words with an almost sensuous passion. I admire the apparently effortless fusion in her work of drastic imagery and intellectual penetration. This is a quality I often look for in vain when reading present day poetry (though not necessarily verse from the 17th century). Rhythm and rhyme are skilfully handled, the latter mostly as alliteration, but also as slant rhymes. Some of Simon’s poems have a kind of quiet breathing that, to me, conveys either spontaneity or calm acceptance.

There is in Ghost Orchid a familiar, very modern preoccupation with the possibility that God may not be there.The conflict between doubt and faith runs through the whole collection. Simon often moves close to agnosticism, even atheism. In this book, both attitudes cause despair, though not for long. And eventually, she reaffirms some kind of belief, if rather provisional and non-dogmatic.

At this point in her book, the divine is no longer conceived as anthropomorphic, masculine, or omnipotent. Rather, it’s described by metaphors such as “this great whiteness unchanging”, an expression borrowed from Beckett (and perhaps with a nod to Melville), and “an unkempt brilliance”. Here, only one step from mysticism, Simon appears to find some peace. There is also a recognition that the divine might be seen as androgynous, “both pistil and stamen”.

But in much of this collection, Simon shows that she is equally familiar with disbelief and the soul’s experience of having been abandoned: “How can I lift my eyes to a gutted sky?” She writes about “God’s scarcity”, and asserts that the deity “has a hole where His heart used to be”. She rails against a conventional God figure, accusing him of being a “poseur, charlatan, chameleon, and chimera”. And elsewhere in this collection, she lets Aphrodite tempt God erotically; the impression conveyed is that it serves him right for being, presumably, hostile to her innocently pagan outlook.

A remarkable poem, “Doomsday”, describes in graphic detail God as a frustrating lover, leaving his partner unsatisfied. This piece, approaching pornography as it does, could be regarded as shocking. However, “Doomsday” is really a brief allegory, with sex standing for (divine) love, and God’s withdrawal meaning alienation as a spiritual state. This is, of course, a time-honoured practice: erotic imagery standing in for some religious experience. The Song of Songs is an obvious example. Seldom if ever can this device have been used as desperately as in Simon, though.

And traditional devil figures, but rather updated, occasionally appear, as does hell. Simon’s Beelzebub wears Armani if not Prada, and sips cappuccino. “Hell has no windows”, asserts Simon, an aptly claustrophobic image, and among the punished sinners there are “whalers”.

Two of my favourite poems in Ghost Orchid are called “Angels” and “Lament”. The former consists mostly of a fantastic, overwhelming, sometimes very funny list of angelic attributes. Simon’s angels

dress in black velvet . . .

powder their noses with pollen . . .

cause vertigo but ease migraines . . .

curl their hair with corkscrews . . .

are without mercy . . .

In “Lament”, poems equal prayers, and Simon modestly characterizes her own lyrical work as “hollow, heartsick . . . Benighted . . . Wishful and wordy”. Her readers are unlikely to agree, however. Despite the monotheistic background to this text, it’s also an elegant pastiche of Old Norse poetry, and, as such, makes me think of W. H. Auden.

Summing up the inner agony of our epoch as it does, in nicely crafted poems, Ghost Orchid is an intriguing collection.

Susanna Roxman

(Lund, Sweden – 2005)