Micrographia by Emily Wilson

I got Emily Wilson’s books because I have a letterpressed broadside of hers, made by the inestimable Sara Langworthy, my  former printing teacher at the University of Iowa Center for the Book. The poem on the broadside is “Small Study,” and the language in it is so lush, so finely wrought, that I wanted to read more. She has two books, The Keep and Micrographia and though I’ve been reading The Keep (her first book) longer, I’ve found it much slower going.

Micrographia however was a faster read. I think it’s because this collection isn’t nearly as dense. The language is detailed and sonic, precise and at times obscure. It is carefully worked, and at times absolutely stunning. At times the language, the rich sonorous words, takes primacy, nearly obscuring the meaning that always lurks one step beyond it. The interplay of sense and sound is exquisite. But there feels like there’s something a little lacking in places, an intent to the language, something beyond the mere ornamental. I think perhaps part of this is the micro – a number of these poems seem so localized that they aren’t as engaging as they might be. In these cases, the ornate language feels empty, like trying to create interest in something that wouldn’t be interesting, but not quite succeeding. For instance, the last few lines of “Johnny Rotten’s Produce”:

And to forclose upon
and let tarnish in terraqueous canes.
The sign says Johnny Rotten.
And Preston’s Tools withdraws
behind its scrim.

This doesn’t have the same impact as the equally specific, but nature-based opening of “Camperdown Elm”:

the little-boned
complex underthing
that is private
stemming toward a leaf

breaks upen in
such flukes such ochers
within its armature
are you here
are you not with me

This is clearly a study, a description of a particular thing she’s noticed in a particular moment. It’s highly specific. But the “private” is recognizable, the “you” and “me” engaging. There’s a quiet emotional resonance threading through the slight lines, the simplicity of the form and phrasing in tension with the complexity of the language and the starkness of the emotion. The contrast between colloquial phrasings and the obscure naturalist language makes the first stranger and the latter resonant, even if the words are unfamiliar. Take the first half of the lovely lyric “Prospect:”

It grew at that slant
alone, down there
beneath the cordons
of pitch pines
some lapse in definition
the trunk state—
the bristled shot branch
deposits its blossoms through branches.
The parts have no portion why not?
They cannot be counted why not?
They make the thing whole?

Of course the “slant” which repeats three times in the poem makes us think immediately of Dickinson, and I hear some Niedecker in here as well, in the lush natural landscape and precise, almost scientific but not quite adjectives (“bristled shot branch” and “pitch pines”). But beyond engaging these traditions, Wilson is questioning her own assertions about the world. The three questions, and the later “A thing can’t be saved from its parts?” have the easy rhythm of everyday speech, and a childlike pushing towards something unanswerable (I’m almost tempted to read “Because that’s the way things are” as the unspoken answers to the questions, obviously an unsatisfactory answer, but the questioning is the more important part in any case). But the lack of separation between statement and question, and the shift of statements into questions that seems to happen almost by surprise at the end of the line, makes these moments very strange, in a way stranger than the obscure language found in other places in the collection.

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