The Great Medieval Yellows by Emily Wilson
Canarium Books, 2015; 72 pp
Reviewed by Davy Knittle


The Great Medieval Yellows is a series of intimacies. Its poems are attuned to elements of the natural world you might need a guide to make perceptible, and ways of being that are at once patient and inundated. Wilson’s work is intensely visual, and turns on the axis of her observations, where “the photosensitive ground,” (29) as she writes in “Saccade” is earth, but also a pathway made of the physical that spreads into a field of ideas, which too have the musculature and movement of her landscape.

Some of the poems’ intimacies are achieved through arrangements of the landscape, tableaus caught in moments of shift. “Mappa Mundi” begins:

Starlings burn their circuits in
three or four distinct
departures from
the trunk that was
straight driven up (19)

Her descriptions offer stillnesses constructed of the parts that moved to make them, and in this way propose systems for looking at any microcosm as a series of movements – birds flying from a tree, the tree rising from the ground.

Some of those intimacies take up the precipice where the underleaf, the underground, emerges, and where self and plant are one form. In the book’s title poem, Wilson writes:

What are you here for
your ardent understanding of
what self in many
moving faculties
that make it so like self—
suckers through the roots of
the undulant woad
it has been living
all along (49)

Here, the self is set in conversation with suckers, plants originating not from seeds, but from the roots of a mother tree. The self is only self-like. The boundaries between distinct elements are complicated by their singular origin, the poems’ lines as wound into one another as the suckers’ roots.

There’s a “you” in these poems that appears and disappears, and is often the recipient of the speaker’s questions, or statements about their exchanges. “You had a way of / Putting me off” (71) Wilson writes in “Dura Mater,” which shares its name with the outermost membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. The relationships within botanical and biological systems are a model for how to be a person among other people. The poems in this collection share with Wilson’s two previous books (The Keep, 2001 and Micrographia, 2009, both published by University of Iowa Press) a lucid attention to fragments of the natural world at such estranging proximity that they become vivid and odd at once. Intimacies in Wilson’s work are also moments of rough and exact exchange, a bewilderment of being called to attention. She writes in “Little Fantasy” “birds / hurled toward me, just to the /point of me” (39).

What’s most striking about the poems in The Great Medieval Yellows is that the image families of the book are in large part naturalistic, but its locus is a self-searching that comes to surface gorgeously and plainly, breaking the book’s ornate syntax in tumbling moments, as in “Machinamenta”:

why don’t you ever
extend yourself
why don’t
you try to
make yourself somehow (36)

Elements of Wilson’s natural world are also set at a distance from nature itself. (The book’s epigraph and its title are taken from The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, a 1956 reference book.) The natural world of the poems appears to be in part observed by Wilson and in part recorded by others. In this way, Wilson puts forth a landscape removed from itself as a metonym for the estrangement of documenting the speaker’s own movements and exchanges.

The poems in The Great Medieval Yellows are reserved, and closely tied to one another. They demand an attention to self and microlandscape alike, and they require that attention of the reader. They’re quiet poems, but they’re also insistent. They’re instructive, too. In “Lichen Association,” Wilson writes: “one must imagine / the thrill and eclipse both” (62) which is as much a guide to reading the poems as it is a way of seeing the single life of the self, or the single life of the planet, two syncretic lives which turn themselves over and over in their interdependence in so many of these careful, uncommon poems.