Micrographia, Emily Wilson. University of Iowa Press. $16.00, 48pp.
Despite their ever-present flora, it’s somewhat false to call the poems in Micrographia “nature poems.” While their topic may be the natural world—sumac and juniper, sparrows, lilacs, jots of fir—the book revolves on a much more ontological axis. An appreciation of nature is present throughout the book, but not the same kind of stillness found in Mary Oliver or Gary Snyder’s quieter verse. Here, nature stands to people as they relate to it (“The butterfly is pinned through its thorax . . . The name affixes to earth.”), not as something set aside elsewhere to be appreciated.
It is a good book, with careful craft and a unified vision, tone, and theme (a theme lifted directly from Robert Hooke’s illustrated seventeenth-century exploration of the microscopic, also titled Micrographia), its poems so firmly intertwined that it reads less like a collection of individual poems than one long poem. It is smooth and thought out, a polished stone of mostly free verse, its language hewn from a distinguished lineage of postwar academic poetry that plays lightly and is marked mostly by its gentle assonance and ease
The poems’ short lines move lightly with meanings bent across lines, but rarely broken. Syntactical opacity is present, but minimally. In this, the forms match the topic: They curl and twist away, settle under soil, get revealed by a moving bank of clouds, but nothing seems out of place (save a few instances of muddled punctuation that, given the overarching consistency, seem accidental). Likewise, in its diction Wilson’s voice knows no other things than pleasantness at rest. For all its finery, one would hope for an occasional delight apart from mere pleasantness. There are few surprises, and as a result, ultimately, it is largely a boring book. Yet in its crystalline forms, it is nonetheless worth attention and time.
The excellent and worthwhile thought underlying the book progresses thusly: 1. There is a disconnect between the things we see and the way things actually are, with the disconnect brought about by distortions of scale and the limits of our ability to comprehend complexity. 2. These discordant views become built up into a mountain of experience that we must recognize and interact with in order to function in the world. 3. These views are further complicated by the presence of our own selves in the very world that we’re trying to interpret. The only experience of the world is our own, and by that ideology we are trapped.
These steps, laid out in broad strokes across the three sections of the book, interweave throughout the individual poems. They play off one another almost endlessly, surfacing in images of branches, melting snow, rivers clipping through peat, and the constant breaking down of plant matter. Though there’s no question that Wilson intends to address the third movement above, she doesn’t embrace it as strongly or incorporate it into her thinking as fully as the others, an omission which leaves an unfortunate gap The second insinutes itself lightly and constantly across the thatch of the poems, but it is on the disclosure of the first and most basic premise that the book most solidly rotates. Wilson doesn’t approach the theme, derived from Hooke, lightly, returning to it so often that the poems quickly cease any real movement and begin to feel washed out, all bleeding together.
In fact, with the constant attention to the interplay between micro- and macro-views, the macro theme reflected in the micro of the individual poems presents a uniformity quite unlike the microscopic revelation of plant cells contrasting with the whole of the plant. The even keel of the book as a whole works its way thematically down all the way to individual lines of individual poems: “A thing can’t be saved from its parts?” If there is a firm difference between the message of the whole and its constituent parts as suggested by Hooke, it cannot be found in Micrographia’s construction.
The title poem, which opens the third section of the book, shows the movement of the poems wrapping about themselves, while still hammering hard on the main, cell-like structure of the book. With the affirmative “you can pick out the patching,” it approaches a reflexivity of thought and brings the person into the frame of nature, but doesn’t follow that line to the degree that it should:
Not quite mosses
alike in their stints
frangible strands and branchings
on a single stretch
you can pick out the patching
scrolling diplsays from arched
The subtle breaking down found thematically throughout the book is present even here in the language itself, with the “s” of “branchings” breaking with its additional half-syllable the rhythm created by the near rhyming of “stints” to “crimps,” one of the few firmly metrically-driven sorties that stand out in the book. The poem goes on to explicate the fact of difference within the whole of the forest:
it gets warmer
toward the bottom
of the basin
of pines the whirring red pines
sulfurous spritz on the inside rim of the spring
implying slow growth
Such difference is, fitting the theme, born out of its sameness—a notion pressed forward by the alliterative force of the “packets / of pines the whirring red pines” and “sulfurous spritz on the inside rim of the spring / implying slow growth.” In the latter lines, the alliteration wonderfully slows with the line break, mirroring the growth it describes.
The theme of atomization (“patching” and “packets” of the stanzas above) continues, as it does throughout the rest of the book, on into the third stanza:
nuthatches counter with distal control
inserting their beaks into the bark
suspected in surfeits of pitwork—
horsehair, guazes, and tinsels streaked off
from the points
the further you go
the compounds absorb through the scrips
alike in divide and doubled-up
scope—rile-crack fishbone-beard wind-shield
tungsten rosette, cursed
The alliteration continues early in this final stanza, only to be interrupted in the third line with “something blunt,” which on a line by itself pecks a hole in the music. Here the nuthatches seem to stand in for ourselves as they pry the nature of the bark apart. The sense of the lines following begins to break down as well, in one of the strongest routines in the book, where the logic of the whole undertaking is felt at work on the level of individual poems.
Earlier in the book Wilson draws out Hooke’s comparison of nature with human-made things thusly:
The needles of art are blunt
but those of nature—
hawthorns, quills, mosquito bits—
sharp as needles under the scope
we invented ourselves for seeing
for we are rude and stumble Hooke said
in our displacements
This earlier passage from “Little Discourse” fittingly lacks much of the sonic work found in “Micrographia,” but the resonance of the notion of bluntness of art still carries across: Ours is an imperfect creation, one where agency is the separating fact. Nature, even in its agency as embodied by a pair of cardinals, is something else:
They are butting and switching among branches
come into the picture like drifters
who made the gatherings more strange.
They work their way inside
It is this consideration of beings in nature that ultimately both saves and damns Wilson’s book in a formal way. It builds wonderful expectations and pushes boundaries of thought in the interplay, but never achieves a unified coherence. The poems state explicitly and reflexively the problems of the use of “beautiful forestations of made language” and offhandedly pry at the imperfections of art, but little is done to counter or answer such worries. Instead, they are just noted, discussed, worried overâ€“but not changed. The book presses for no resolution, and the questions quickly become leisurely and vapid.
As such, Wilson’s verse—in its own well-wrought crispness—points to a more perfect version of the world, one in which the smooth laying out of nature works evenly all the way up to the poems themselves. Its large theme of the difference of things across scale seems betrayed by an aesthetic system of valuation which points to uniformity and perfect order. The contemporary supposition of arbitrary or unstable valuation seems lost on Wilson, as if she, like Hooke, were more interested in displaying the perfection of God than the state of living humans. The central theme then seems to lack any importance beyond mere hobby-work to occupy an idle afternoon in the country.
For her part, Wilson can’t seem to decide where Micrographia fits into the picture of humanity within nature or without. Its music and forms render the images so well that its failings can only be seen as moral ones. The poems hem and haw, but never gain insight into the natural as it rears its head. For Hooke, the determination seems easy, with God’s divinity being passed on to man, keeping him from the beasts. Wilson, in her little-”m” modernity, wants it both ways. In the near-perfect modulation of her finely crafted verse, she barely lets on that these poems, as things, are something apart from nature. Without taking a stand either way, in its perfected beauty, the book ultimately leave the question: So what?
Michael Marcinkowki lives and works in Chicago.
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