They’re Called Cells for a Reason

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wilson-microA review of Micrographia

People don’t read enough, and when they do, they don’t ask the questions of themselves that Micrographia demands.

Emily Wilson’s Micrographia is a careful, luscious, and evocative book. It explores early microscopy, particularly the drawings and discoveries of Robert Hooke (1635-1703), who coined the term cell. How Wilson uses microscopy both informs her subject matter as well as her technique: the poems are both forceful and delicate as they contemplate the romance between inner and outer-space. Like the glass flowers collection at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (see Marianne Moore’s “Silence”), Wilson uses powerful lyric acuity to craft materiality into fresh, blooming lenses that tell us, more than anything else, how to observe details.

I loved Wilson’s first book, The Keep, and Micrographia further perfects the strengths evident then: kneading her words, especially the rugged, staccato Anglo-Saxon nouns, around enjambments, along muscular lines which break at their most tender and evocative turns. Wilson takes seriously the idea that ploughs leave gaps in the ground where the soil has been lifted and moved across to the right, and that this, a furrow, is mimicked when we read from left to right. Her language is frequently moved along her silent white field of the page by its own volition, which allows her to be objective and let the language rather than her own sentimentalities affect the reader. From “Sunset–Rouen”:

Just to the left and down from
the central engagements
–clock tower, vaults of the long mauve bridge
sun and its correlate
swashes come back
to prime, spurred
cathedral, ceding
carmine, chartreuse up against it

Sometimes Wilson prefers the more mannered and aggressive punctuation of dashes, hyphens, and commas (such as those in Frank Bidart’s or Emily Dickinson’s work) that hand the reader across syntax so that the meaning vaults across the silences of white space. Other times, equally assured and authoritative, she prefers the unpunctuated, holistic style (such as W.S. Merwin’s) which leaves floating petals of lines and draws the reader deep into the strange reduction of memory and perception that confronts us when we observe nature, such as “Interior”:

hookes-microscopereflections 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

I must think before thinking of them
so limber road-red and persisting

around to some mean
I must go toward through snow

barrens above an ocean
the cognitions of which give of

shales of greens of
things I know dwell there

In “Interiors” the thing observed and the dislocated, disembodied voice (a thoughtful, feeling observer) become unified: the prepositions and precise use of passive voice gradually increase tension as perspectives mix until she, the speaker, and the tree itself appear through the thicket and announce their cognizance (“things I know dwell there”). Wilson is a master of subtle changes in psychic distance, of how close or far the observing lens is from the subject matter. She is constantly attentive to her own observing of the natural world and how the fact she’s observing it tends to alter the thing observed. From “Picturesque”:

And little guts appear
in walls and asphalt
pink disturbing
bursts, vascular
shafts, rotational
basal aigrettes like chamois insoles.

The fact that the speaker is disturbed begs the reader to ask: are humans even necessary for the multifaceted, prism-like worlds of plants (or butterflies, or cathedrals) to manifest themselves in space? Wilson tends to motion toward the affirmation of humans looking, but treading gently into the environment. This is delicately mirrored in her language, itself charged and glistening with only the slightest manipulation by a writer’s weaknesses such as scorn. Watch how the speaker in “Event” involves herself only at the end, when the stakes of the nature being observed are already at play without her involvement:

Snow in the coils
of the vine in the traceries

of the lilac breaks down in
loose chunks that are pitting

the snow they fall into
whose rule is now lateral

pendence of crystals now hitched now
struck under

inside is the African violet
strain of the underleaf

almost magenta recessed
toward the stalk I think

what the substance
urged into

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in Nature (1836) said: “Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance. Right means straight; wrong means twisted. Spirit primarily means wind; transgression, the crossing of a line; supercilious, the raising of the eyebrow.” Wilson’s antecedents to a certain extent are the Transcendentalists, whose social responsibility (I could call it morality) was intimately tied to their deference to the unblinking, amorality of nature. More than any other poet, Wilson is in the unique position because of her unassailable lyric gifts and interest in natural phenomena, to show the power of language to connect our carelessness towards the environment and our carelessness towards each other.

Besides the distant first-person speaker of the poems in Micrographia, only one other person, Bill, inhabits here. Like the Bill in Hart Crane’s “Sunday Morning Apples,” this Bill comes in “once to pin a shirt to the strung-across line” (“Endemic”) and has a “garden, raw garden” (“Growth and Form”) and he appears as a final allusion for Hooke, who, at least in the poems, moves further away from people and closer from the lilacs, pigeons, mosses, and cork he was observing.

Rumpus BooksHere is the paradox of the inward potency of this type of observation and this style of writing: Wilson’s insistence that the nature we must observe in all its careful, accurate detail is necessary for us to act as ethical, thinking people is somewhat countermanded by the solipsism that might come from removing oneself from interacting with anything but plants. The language itself, as wonderful and impervious to judgment as it is, tends to be indicative of this dialectical line: only the most sensitive, most intelligent reader will find what is vital in these poems. People don’t read enough, and when they do, they don’t ask the questions of themselves that Micrographia demands.

Emily Wilson’s new book is a stunning and brave set of poems. It provides pleasure even as it does something surprising: it makes the reader aware that the plant cell and the cells of the mind, shutting us from our connection to the world, are both called cells for a reason.

Sean Singer’s first book Discography won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.S. Merwin, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. He has also published two chapbooks, Passport and Keep Right On Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water, both with Beard of Bees Press and is the recipient of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has recently appeared in Memorious, Pleiades, Souwester, Iowa Review, New England Review, and Salmagundi. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers-Newark. He lives in Harlem, New York City. More from this author →