Alchemy and Myth: New Books by Emily Wilson and Julie Carr

Jay Aquinas Thompson

Emily Wilson. The Great Medieval Yellows. Marfa, TX: Canarium, 2015. 88 pages. $14.00
Julie Carr. Think Tank. New York, NY: Solid Objects, 2015. 96 pages. $16.00.

(Click on cover images to purchase)

Science or magic? Emily Wilson knows: choose both. The temperament underlying her fourth collection of poems, The Great Medieval Yellows, feels not scientific, not magical, but alchemical: lyrics of lichen, blossom, stone, and ganglia feel learned without being show-offy, spell-casting without dissolving into haze or cliché. Where a thousand tedious nature lyrics have sung blossoming bounty, Wilson’s speaker is drawn obsessively to smaller growths, “florid rimes” and encrustations, “crystallized bibbings off / the flawed stalk,” “crenellated piths / bredes and orchidlike / struts.” The poems are exact, right down to their enormous vocabulary, which includes words that certain readers will already love the taste of (vitreous, crenellated, abstruse), and words so particular to the garden (umbel, spathe, forb, the names of dozens of trees and flowers) that, for a reader like me, they signify more at first as markers of a gnomic knowledge than as image.

An extended quotation serves to illustrate this witchy, meticulous quality. The poem “Caucasian Wingnut” comprises a single sentence hyperdeveloped (and hence, in a book of hyperdevelopment, indicative) across fifty-one lines:

. . . the frame coped inside its bay
rich with cellulose-
threaded spectral detail
with some interior still
for a small Egyptian frond
tree, tissue trace incised in stone
a fern progenitor
unknittable in turn
to the tender cystic gypsum-
haired polypodium—
or, just my own flawed entrapments
jamming through
the studded plates . . .

Like so much else in Yellows, “Caucasian Wingnut” is less to be tracked as argument than crept through, eyes squinted and hands out. Wilson’s last book, Micrographia, was dotted with little lyrics whose pensive, open mood would be familiar to most readers of contemporary poetry. In Yellows, by contrast, every poem is packed, sonically noisy and consistently obsessive in its detail. It’s refreshing to read a book that so openly enjoys itself—notice Wilson’s delight in both the rattle-bang t’s and s’s of “tissue trace incised in stone” and in the vivid image the line conveys—and one whose style so clearly bears the imprint of its material. Wilson’s precision and her verbal music together drag the reader to just inches above her exactly described lichens, blossoms, stones, ganglia: “flesh compressions / olivish, tilting, etched / with vermillion, translucent / windowlike corneal forms.”

The Great Medieval Yellows reminds me of Ronald Johnson’s Shrubberies—the work of another alchemist!—in its open-anywhere quality, as opposed to any cumulative journey or developing argument through the book as a whole. Yellows’s pleasure for the reader lies in its abundant love for its subject-objects—as does, ultimately, the way the book tires the reader out. I adore the curiosity-cabinet quality of Yellows, and no poem here is less than vivid, but any spiritual or emotional arc Wilson intends is buried as the book goes along. Wilson, mercifully, does not work the book’s I’s and you’s to make its stones and lichens merely metaphorical; nonetheless, the poems so adamantly return to their natural objects that there’s a sense of lost emotional opportunity among the wonderful material. One poem, “Patterned Ground,” ends:

I’ll pay you
something
anything
that which I owe
for that which has been
here russeting
off the dark rock
down a vast
toothed
regularity

Where, I found myself asking, does this desperation come from? Why the speaker’s feeling of debt? The reader doesn’t find out; in its close, the poem seems to clamber away from these strong feelings, back into its now-familiar pleasures. The Great Medieval Yellows is a book I’m sure I’ll return to again and again, for its vigorous thought with its “stubbed endings / up in gaps, between being and persisting,” but I wish its delight had left me feeling more illuminated.

The Think Tank Julie Carr has in mind is, of course, her book itself: a chamber of dense time. Also the writing body: the time spanned by this daybook-ish volume encompasses a pregnancy and the infancy of a child, a time of being bodily guided by another’s needs and mysteries. (Full disclosure: a few years ago, I was co-editor of a journal that published some pieces of Think Tank, many in earlier forms.) Many poets have written on new parenthood in a manner that feels anecdotal (“remember the time when we . . . ?”), but Carr’s temperament leads her away from anecdote and toward myth; away from collections of factual detail and toward an evocation of the frightening gravity and mystery that life takes on in a time of dislocating change. Think Tank doesn’t proceed chronologically—the child, one of the book’s “timekeepers,” moves from external presence to womb and back—but from atomization and tension to a kind of resolute, unsimple jubilation. Throughout Think Tank, the speaker is awed to find herself suddenly participating in an old story of mythic dimensions.

I must effort to remember this
      girl-baby on her back

Wind up and the water grew hotter. Her visage more
      or less fair, fairly sound, sweetly fair
Where is my fool? I think the world asleep

      In my mother’s mossy little mirror
      the freedoms of fire
      vaporized. We’ve altogether
      forgotten her

Is this, then, the place?

The material, like the tone of Carr’s questions here, feels very serious. But the swiftness with which Carr can change registers (between two images, in the music between two lines, between her own words and interpolated language such as Lear’s above) means that Think Tank doesn’t feel ponderous. The material can turn as heavy and symbolic as the early “Footsteps above / future below” and then as simple as this later confession: “There’s a very small window in which I can use my panic to write better, / this has not been / one of those times.” Think Tank has room for both.

The question—in a book whose form is so capacious—is: what material fits, what doesn’t? As in a daybook, the diversity of Think Tank’s material is its evenness. There are particularly beautiful and haunting images (“[t]o each diaphanous belligerent wind, I add a bit of dust / straight from the pocket of my dress”) everywhere in Think Tank, but the book’s shifting, lived-in quality means that some of the most attention-grabbing lines also feel the most incongruous: “It’s 6:47 and magisterially the sky incubates easy gentlemen / & massive bitches / of cloud.” A line like this sticks out in a way that disrupts the book’s rhythm, rather than deepening it.

Likewise, the nimble, gestural way in which Carr gathers her material means that the formation of each of the book’s units (one or two on a page, separated by asterisks) can feel haphazard. Sometimes Think Tank’s running-together leaves behind material that just doesn’t stick:

Little chairs, the tops
of pens, motes as unknowable
as stars. A sore spot
on my spacing thumb
I hear the voice

But other times, the elements pulled together strike each other perfectly, and the book’s shifty, receptive voice becomes its own argument about the way we construct ourselves:

A room, a moor: all’s
empty but for
one man walking

his mother around

In every human hand I’ve known:
white moths and self-lit fish

The murmuring

Think Tank ends with breathlessness, silence, an intimation of prematurity and an interpolation from Shakespeare (“Ripeness is all, come on”) that could as well be an epigraph for the book as a whole. Finishing Think Tank, I thought of Fanny Howe’s essay on the poetics of bewilderment: “A signal does not necessarily mean that you want to be located or described. It can mean that you want to be known as Unlocatable and Hidden.” Carr’s book is elusive; its mythic seriousness is more an environment, a site of its ongoingness, than a means to any archetypal resolution. But Think Tank’s environment, with its fluid time and sense of daily mystery, should be familiar to anyone who’s ever passed through a time of great change.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter