Book Review

In Micrographia, Emily Wilson draws inspiration from Robert Hooke’s seventeenth-century publication of the same name that details Hooke’s study of microscopy. Both poet and naturalist proceed with the imperative of expanding knowledge; where the naturalist’s study attempted to rectify a lacking human analytic, the poet, post-enlightenment, has a greater luxury of introspection. Where the former presents a lesson, Wilson offers an invitation to a more idiosyncratic yet successful study.

Wilson modulates her poems in terms of focus, thus adding the element of diversity to her work. The following lines from the opening poem, “Fugitive,” inhabit this notion of a shifting focus:

Look up through the radial describe.
A cloud is decaying.

It disbands from itself.
It is the law.

Wilson treads through the various levels of focus swiftly, adding both mechanism and contemplation to the work. This brief passage moves from a sky view to a single cloud. The focus then shifts within, to the image of the cloud disbanding. Not only are we drawn in, but through, to an underlying principle that governs the image—the law. This movement is a tendency from the apparent understood toward a governing abstraction, one difficult to elaborate on—one referencing an extent.

Wilson seems to consider vision an act of historicism. Because of this, process becomes a unifying feature in her work. With “Monadnock,” Wilson begins in stillness: “Sometimes the whole thing stands / still, residual / ribbed as the stratum is. . . .” A monadnock, in geologic terms, is an uprising in a more level terrain. In this poem it begins as a static thing, a remnant. Wilson animates the presumed inanimate:

It seems to be listing,
burled in the surface.
&The purple adheres to the back
pivots, shunts over
the scotched hump.

The use of texture adds vitality to the subject. The image is one that has been raised up, emboldened and scoured by time. Wilson relies on underlying origins, “the stratum,” as well as processes both grand, as in geologic, and minute, as in the fleeting of color. Noticeably, there is no question mark in the brief final line: “Then what.” The speaker, rooted in process, is not reliant on what will come but on what has occurred and is occurring.

Wilson’s ability to emulate the processes of mind—its chronologic deficiency, its multi-presence—is intriguing. With the poem “Interior” we see an example of time and personage marvelously conflated:

reflections in a marriage breakfront
in which to glimpse a door

has just been opened
a child come half-way through

then backed back in again
or outside arms of red cedars

Who is springing forth or retreating? Is it the speaker? Is it a child? Some other? What textures this brief and wrenching poem is the mingling of eras and place: it is the relationship, the ocean, the red cedars, the retreat of one or more unknown to the reader. As so often, the unknown, as a sort of absence, grants character to the poem.

It is notable that micrographia also refers to intensely small handwriting. This is applicable when considering “Morpho Terrestre”:

The butterfly is pinned through its thorax
and from that point the wings read
in canted panels
releasing the stored chromes
the inner mechanics.
The name affixes to earth.
The wings barely do.

This excerpt acknowledges the ineffectual integration of subject and name. The insect is pinned with a name applied—a terrestrial name, unfit for a being of loft. Wilson recognizes that affixing an inadequate name is both misleading and unjust given the aim of concision in study. The speaker further describes the corpse: “The legs have been plucked, / feelers sealed back from the jaws with dark glue.” What remains after the description is a distant echo, some small perceptible but largely inaccessible writing noted early on—the “canted panels” of wings. It is as if, underlying, there is music.

Wilson’s work is pleasing and integrated in terms of sound. From “Stereotype”:

It is possible to make out
the stops in the cockling stone
almost monochrome
wedgwood, jouvence blue, blue woad
where the wave funds up
expressed from an undergone
trough, the pedestals
sloughing off echoes, "crumbs" and "tumblers."

Note the anticipation of subsequent sounds in lines like “wedgwood, jouvence blue, blue woad” and again with “sloughing off echoes, ‘crumbs’ and ‘tumblers.'” The lines are crafted as to arrive at a logical end in terms of sound. Each word echoes the previous and builds upon it. The speaker may be inaccessible even in her most lucid voice. At such times, what poetry can do, in lieu of abetting cognition, is euphonize. In so doing, it builds a relationship between poet and reader. In part, Wilson’s poetry is accessible, not for its subject, but for unifying the line. She integrates the components, allowing you to hear their agreement.

Pursuit is an art called into question in Picturesque, where Wilson raises the question of volition:

Most acts, if they are acts
are not primary acts
amid the -taxis
of other actions
are they.

The speaker questions the motivational authenticity of action. Is there such a thing as action given the phenomenon of response to stimuli? It could be argued that most action is only response. Carrying that argument to a conclusion, one could say that the response of the poet to the gift of perception is to alternatively turn outward and inward, as does Wilson—as did her forebearer, Hooke—in an attempt to understand and convey. The small images, and those of great magnitude, are the extents that we pursue. The harsh irony is that through the microscope the writing only gets smaller, remaining elusive. Conversely, in turning your eye upward the writing becomes too immense to avail itself as writing. In this exceptional book, Wilson both grasps and celebrates that irony.

About the Reviewer

Kevin Ward earned his MFA in creative writing from Colorado State University. Poems of his have appeared in Interim. Currently he is studying law at the University of Wyoming.