The Great Medieval Yellows
Emily Wilson

Canarium Books, 2015

The title of Emily Wilson’s third collection, The Great Medieval Yellows, we learn from the epigraph, refers to colors ranging from gold to orange to saffron, all derived from plants and minerals, and all included in Daniel V. Thompson’s 1956 treatise The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting. The book delivers us—through an almost-microscopic attention to detail and distinction—into a tangled garden landscape of flora and fauna. Wilson’s viny syntax spills down short lines that complicate at every turn, suspending comprehension and leaving the reader unsure, until the last line, what’s what:

to be close to
removed from
at once all unseen
repentances how
are you anything
alive to such work

Wilson’s poems are obsessed with extending our vision beyond the surface—even to the point where that surface grows abstract. In “Equivalents for a Megalith” this extension and abstraction both celebrates and undercuts our ability to comprehend: “[w]e cannot know how far to the true.” Although they utilize a wide-ranging diction, including that suited for a taxonomical guidebook (strobilus, staddles, vasculature, mastics, etc.), the poems often turn suddenly toward the personal (“just / how is it you // think you can / come in here and // scut the fatty mastics / off // the antagonies.”) It can be a terrifically arresting effect, as in “Machinamenta”:

why don’t you ever
extend yourself
why don’t
you try to
make yourself somehow
extend yourself

Implicit in all of this is a sense that the book’s labyrinthine snarl represents “the mind / sensing itself,” like a Mappa Mundi, a world we cannot yet fully realize. Wilson’s external, physical world is, in the end, equally unknowable and her poems embody our inability to grasp the entirety of what lies beyond, above, or under our gaze—the fine detail and multiplicity of the world. It is not a book of failure, however; it is alive with color, and with the project of seeing acutely and conscientiously. If “we invented ourselves for seeing,” as Wilson writes in her prior collection, Micrographia, her work here, with its thorny, recursive, and recondite language, extends that proclamation.