The Great Medieval Yellows, poetry by Emily Wilson, reviewed by Timothy Duffy


In James Galvin’s introduction to some of Emily Wilson’s poems in the Boston Review (for a “Poet’s Sampler” section devoted to her work in 2002), he argued that Wilson’s poems “are not written for analysis, perhaps not even for approval.” He calls the poems “strenuous as the thinking they freight” and “unresolvable as their passions.” The implication here: these poems are difficult, and they don’t care if you like them or not. This warning, or set of guidelines, is important for appreciating the boldness of Emily Wilson’s new collection The Great Medieval Yellows, out this year from Canarium Books. This is her third collection following The Keep (2001) and Micrographia (2009), both published by University of Iowa Press (Wilson also has poems featured in a limited edition artist book Morpho Terrestre, produced in 2006).

The poems in this collection are poems about language and naming. Which, though it can seem like a vague cliché true of all poetry, is especially true for Wilson. The meaning of words, and there are many obscure denotations to chase down, becomes somewhat secondary in the experience of reading the sounds of her words. It’s not that the poems are free from any narrative meaning, but nor are they mainly expository. They reveal through process and through motion, through the interplay of the familiar and the grossly unfamiliar or destabilizing. In this sense, her work is in the tradition of Wallace Stevens and Jorie Graham, though her poems do not sound much like either poet.

With this in mind, the beginning epigraph of the collection makes clear that we are dealing with words more than semantic chains of meaning in this collection. It comes from Daniel V. Thompson’s The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting and is essentially a list of major medieval yellows (“apart from gold…orpiment and ochre, giallorino (probably usually massicot), mosaic gold, saffron, buckthorn, and weld.”). This list of words, far from everyday parlance and distant, even, from the contexts of their usage, could frustrate the ungenerous reader. Is Wilson signaling, they may wonder, simply the existence of these words without any commentary of their use? Is this passage really the best to choose? Yet the charm and appeal of this work is precisely in its attention to the way we face these sorts of words as we face the pigments and textures of the natural world that they seek to describe. In this collection, the texture and effect of the names of things are important pathways into the things themselves. Many of the poems in this collection are not traditionally mimetic, allegorical, or even analogic. Hints of these tools may linger, but the main effect is a destabilized sense movement within the technical vocabularies of the natural world. A nature walk in Wilson’s collection, and this collection like much of her previous work is devoted to the natural world, is an uncertain but fervent act of heavy lifting, as Galvin warned or encouraged her readers thirteen years ago. These poems are like small dense objects you bring into your knapsack thinking they won’t be too heavy only to be confronted by their great depth and weight. To appreciate them, though, one has to embrace the way Wilson builds a poem out of dense language and fragments.

And dense language there is, in ample supply, it enriches and infests this collection; in the titles alone, there is “Siphonophore,” “Strobilus,” “Saccade,” “Dried Panicle,” “Eidolon,” “Caucasian Wingnut” (an even better title if you don’t know this is a type of tree), “Gnomon,” and “Kunstkammer.” Beyond the titles, Wilson displays a fondness for arcane and obscure words and phrases. One poem alone features “microplasts,” “grisailling,” and “crenulated.” Botanical, scientific, and philosophical language abound, producing an experience in the reader of revelation, a constant version of “oh, so that’s what those are called.” Yet to say the collection provides an education may be beside the point. Yes, new words are offered, but they are not didactically unpacked. This is not a bug, but a key feature of the workings of this collection, which seeks, it seems to this reader, to insist on the sound first, the meaning second.

The opening poem, for instance, keeps you in sparse language, moving from one stable subject into a dense fog of movement:

White-throated sparrow
throating out

spring the winter-
spring uptaken in

tracking the
moving subject moving off toward its lone

demolition compound

Though one can imagine the quite specific white-throated sparrow, a winter bird, singing in a hybrid space between winter and spring and this “moving subject” moving toward a kind of solitary destruction (the coming of spring? eventually a forb wields itself through the ground), the “zones of strident radiation,” where the poem ends up in the last line, challenges us to see the connection between time, movement, and fixed labels of cyclical nature. The true experience of the poem is just a bit beyond the sum of its words.

In one of the best poems of the collection, “Strobilus,” Wilson writes that

In ancient forms the forms are free
to intersect in pointed parts
so roadside parts are charms, prisms
to handle them is

Pull the shafts apart, then
finger-pink the segment-ends
back over the spurred tips, pinch
the sockets in a sense undoing

What just temporarily did

The interplay of motion, texture, and intervention drives this poem forward. A “strobilus” is a cone formation, and so the shape and form of this natural phenomenon becomes, in Wilson’s poem, a meditation on form and desire, ending with one of the best lines of the collection: “Be fruitful. Be crenulated with want.”

The title poem, another high point of the collection, highlights the need to address nature in its proper vocabulary to unpack what could be called its essential essence or use. As we find ourselves wondering “how to get your gilding on”—to put those Medieval Yellows to good use—we are eventually reminded that

it has been living
all along
oxidizing under the topic
brilliance, hematite, lime white,
a little pinch in the dish

I won’t ruin the last line for curious readers, but it’s worth it. Nature is there, our thoughts and desires in confronting nature are there, but the way the two interact becomes the main issue. To label things with language at all is perhaps to give into a fantasy of ownership and understanding. Wilson’s collection undoes this fantasy.

This is a hard collection to summarize. Her poems, as Galvin warned and praised thirteen years ago, are not there to be understood, and readers attempting that may actually become irritated. Yet, for the reader willing to put down the dictionary, Google only in subsequent readings, and feel the texture of these descriptions in a first read, they will capture something new and original in the long history of the poetry of nature. This collection takes patience, and eventually some study, but it is worth it, if only to inhabit the lively mind and imagination that created such a disjunction of language, mood, and movement. The kind of thing that reminds you what thinking about nature can be like as you approach the borders between sound, image, and sense.

The Great Medieval Yellows, by Emily Wilson. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Canarium Books, April 2015. 88 pages. $14.00, paper.

Timothy Duffy is Assistant Professors/Faculty Fellow of Comparative Literature at New York University. He teaches and writes on poetry, Renaissance European thought and culture, and literary theory.

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