The Great Medieval Yellows, Emily Wilson
Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy, Joanna Klink
from Boston Review, November/December 2015
Joanna Klink’s “Processional,” from her new book Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy, expresses a certain anxiety and hope:
If there is a world where we feel very little,let it not be our world. Let worth be worthand energy action—let blood fly up to the surface
The same concerns run through Emily Wilson’s new book, as well. At issue for both poets is vitality—the “principal substance,” as Wilson calls it—that propels both “action” and articulation in a sphere of profound solitude. Each poet situates her distinctly solitary speaker in a “natural” scene; each represents in that natural site a corresponding interior circumstance. The notable differences lie in position and perspective. In Robert Frost’s lexicon, if Wilson looks “in deep” at the dazzling, meticulous particulars of a flourishing landscape, then Klink gazes “out far” into the vast echoing absences of a world iced over, damaged, bereft.
The opening lines of “The Garden” typify Wilson’s style, her intense language and torqued lineation. Not one line in The Great Medieval Yellows is slack, empty, or uninteresting; every line is dramatic, focused, grounded, strange, and compelling:
Down in duskin the treadsthe garden tendsinto its ownuntending, grown-out scrupulous detail,noxious deeds, the bowedlustrous willows’ busksdealt to the ground, allsmall detonations slungto the pathways, nonebut in the ruinedminuscule tellswhat will be done
Reading Wilson’s work is like looking through a microscope at a rock or snowflake. Each close-up yields deeper and stranger detail, form, and precision. With a contagious, almost geeked-out gusto, she writes of the oddities and generative operations of nature. Willow “busks” are “grown-out” and “dealt to the ground,” as the tree buds swell and cast off their husks, uncorsetting in “small detonations.” There is tangible pleasure in this sharp focus and equal pleasure in the language itself unfolding, line-breaking, evolving phrase by phrase.
The title of Wilson’s last book, Micrographia (2009), makes her method overt. “Little writing” refers to Wilson’s obsession with detail, especially “the ruined minuscule” of natural details, and recalls Robert Hooke’s 1665 book of the same title. Hooke’s experiments with lenses provided fabulous views of worlds in miniature—from a housefly’s eye to distant planets. Likewise, in The Great Medieval Yellows, Wilson’s writing is precise, yet crammed, fussy, and fertile: the “calcareous crinoline” of a sponge, the “luciferous / borderline character” of a “paleo- / type” of “digitated lemon,” the leaves of herbs or the “Enveloping hand-pixeled scape” of the “soldier-colored / Tufts” of a bird.
Sometimes this manner of detail can be slow going. Wilson’s work turns now and then claustrophobic in aspect or in syntax, a touch choked off from airy clarity. Even in these short first lines of “Dried Panicle,” her purpose and images are not clear:
many intervalsdispersingcrossingbringingthought ofspringjades sullenundergunningsalong the sealed-up glister-groundruggedness a fendednessstriking both, failure and ourfeature intosiege, externally
But such difficulty is part of her method of observing and articulating the strange particularity of each natural entity. When you stare so long, sometimes you end up squinting.
More typically, Wilson’s scrutinies seem exact, appropriate, and revealing. To match an observation with suitable language, she locates the technical names for things, their “ciliate plates” and “concentric catenations.” She traces with relish the botanical processes at hand, as the “Long-tapered tips, like / the tips of parsnips curling out, / pitted, sheepish portrait of / a ‘pregnant’ sour orange.” She recasts one part of speech as another to see afresh; a white-throated sparrow may be “throating out // spring” or the “cushion plants warp / in bands down slope / with the swift / ice-out of the fell’s / defining freshets.” Even her poetic strategies, such as line-break and figuration, seem part of the unfurling organic nature of things.
In the opening of “Secretive Soil Fauna,” Wilson’s minimal lines release, step by step, their rich descriptive information, as in the examples above. But here she folds in a further aspect, acknowledging her own presence; her touch inevitably alters the “blue mold spikes” and “fatty mastics” of the landscape and its rich biota:
of the fungiI have doneapart no crimecan comesintered slewmite and nematodeaccosting inthe earliest makeshiftroots’ most intimatesymbiosis
Presence—the presence of language, touch, a solitary human gaze—changes the constitution of both place and process. To compensate, Wilson reminds us that presence can also be generative, appreciative, and, yes, natural. Listen to the high-country music of the mountain in “Little Bigelow,” the humming ms and bumpy gusts, the wind with its long streaming o’s:
In this high intimacythe mountain asksthrough formulatingjoists its reservesits floats itsoverlooks—here,you get those blowsy cloudsblotting the baize,some are really moving,streaming so
Such naturalism, such idiosyncratic seeing and saying, traces back from Sandra McPherson to Marianne Moore and further to Emily Dickinson and John Clare. But Wilson’s is a naturalism hybridized with a postmodernist’s self-awareness and linguistic fluidity. She’s an eco-poet, though not particularly an activist-in-verse. In fact, her poems, for all their natural detailing and minutiae, in spite of occasional human presence, can feel at times depopulated; people are barely glimpsed. Only among the least shadows does she suggest a corollary human relationship: “was it you who veered / from me, from the fleet point,” she asks in “Little Fantasy.” She is more comfortable as a conservator, a namer, keeping the company of leaves, minerals, and “starlings burn[ing] their circuits in / three or four distinct / departures.” Perhaps that is Emily Wilson’s secret. Perhaps we are not that central to the life of the natural world. Only now and then, off to the side, is there “something human / reaching it.”
• • •
If Wilson’s scenery is so close-up it feels a little claustrophobic, then Klink’s landscape in Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy is windblown, mournful, and empty. As in Wilson’s new poems, there is almost no one else here.
Solitude is the primary narrative circumstance of Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy, a circumstance Klink first traced in Raptus (2010), following the disintegration of her marriage. Even now, the loss feels radical and profound, eerily more present than whatever real elements might constitute her surroundings, as these lines from “Pericardium” suggest:
Am I not alone, as I thought I was, as I thoughtThe day was, the hour I walked into, morningWhen I felt the night fly from my chest where prospect hadSlackened, and close itself off, understanding, as I thought I did,That the ground would resist my legs
Reclusive solitude, the dismemberment or dissembling of the body, the slippage and loss of time—these are fundamental elements of a post-traumatic psyche. Klink’s new work expresses what Dickinson calls the “formal feeling” that ensues “after great pain.” Like Dickinson, whose most powerful poems seem to occur virtually postmortem, Klink articulates a Keatsian “posthumous existence.” She seeks to correlate the posthumous with the first glimpses of a newly possible life. The dreamy, dissociative numbness of past trauma quietly shifts, as here in “Blizzard,” to a blank present still unscripted, unmarked by movement or desire:
Snow fell that day as it fallsconstantly through sleeplush drumming to nothingwaves of hard silverNow it descends into the whitedarkness of your privacyand you wake to the borealcentury that is yours
Like Wilson, Klink is a belated romantic or post-romantic poet who writes as though landscape and psyche, the inner and the outer shapes of things, are mutually reflective. Klink’s residence in Montana provides a ready topography and weather for the harsh, sometimes perilous going of her emotional life. That landscape is barren, inhospitable, or, as in “Terrebonne Bay,” degraded by ecological ruin. Even in moments of awakening or rebirth, Klink’s speaker—hesitant, reluctant—finds “rib-stick animals” and homeless “exhausted men” are her companions in a habitat beset with a metaphysical chill that is also, literally, life-threatening: “Who kept watch when / having not fed its own / people the town / turned ice-white.” Even when summer comes at last and “you loll / on the slats of the jetty,” she still finds “scarce living in a town that / now skims / the lake of your / privacy.” Excerpts, then, is less about loss than the confrontation with loss. It is about the going-on of things despite the temptation to replay one’s grief like the “night-glowing openhearted / sting-of-salt weather.”
If the first tendency is a mournfulness that echoes, then one element enlivening Klink’s work is a growing mastery of her art itself. She gives words to a wordless grief, expressed as “a need / so deep in our bodies we could not even weep.” She finds linguistic and formal means to represent the wordless, like the wind that blows through the openings in “Early Night, Askew”:
What is remarkable What is improbableWhat is shameless or feckless or vagueI would keep my own counseland the paper cuts on my handswould skin over the dull boltfanning across my left temple Darknessseems to be folding itself into this townlike subterranean brume smudgeson the shop-glass people as they passnodding to each other Early moonI can hardly understand
In these interstices, Klink makes silence audible, time tangible, and meditation palpable. The phrasing is minimal and plain-style; her sense of timing feels perfect. The caesuras provide a subtle complexity, creating an alternate lineation, as though the poem were in two or three versions, superimposed, as though the voice were nonetheless heard in stereo. Likewise, with hardly a touch, she shifts from concrete detail to internalized observation, as from body to mind, city to self, even as the physical harm of a paper cut starts to “skin over” in the first step toward repair or recovery.
In the final section of “3 Bewildered Landscapes,” Klink makes room for another kind of openness:
STARS, SCATTERSTILL. Constellations of people and quiet.
Those nights when nothing catches, nothing also is artless.
I walked for hours in those forests, my legs a canvas of scratches,
trading on the old hopes—we were meant to be lost. But being lost
means not knowing what it means. Inside the meadow is the grass,
rich with darkness. Inside the grass is the wish to be rooted, inside the rain
the wish to dissolve. What you think you live for you may not live for.
One star goes out. One breath lifts inside a crow inside a field.
Here the widened lines and doubled spaces reiterate the book’s paradox. Emptiness is the site of loss and damage, but it also hints at a place for discovery. Klink’s subtle turn from past tense to present marks a spot of potential recovery. She was cut, scratched, but her relinquishment of the “old hopes” opens a new life “rich with darkness,” where not-knowing replaces mere sight with visionary prospect.
Even more than Wilson, Klink writes without irony. Or, more exactly, her ironies are circumstantial—where solitude must confront desire, where loss faces longing—rather than the easier ironies of tone. Contemporary poetry drips with such ironies, voiced as sarcasm, snark, or a purposeful absence of affect; it is seen in the glib, over-prompted and underwhelming tricks of workshop verse. By contrast, Excerpts from a Secret Prophecythrobs with hurt. Such is its power and its peril. When the poems in Excerpts are content to depict scenes of desolation, to repeat them past the point of discovery into redundancy, they lose their forcefulness. Perhaps this is the maddening fact of grief, though—the repetition of an absence. “What is one hour / that I should care / that I should lose him again,” Klink verifies in “Aubade.”
The surprise of Excerpts comes in the gradual emergence, from sorrow and doubt, of vitality. In “Blizzard” the shocked self begins to feel again: “You asked / to live among others / and here you are / living.” The surprise of living provides a revitalized if tentative set of further realizations: to feel endurance (“our bodies / bear tremendous sorrow and still / we stay as long as we can”); to feel longing (“I know something beats inside the seasons”); to feel the stirrings of desire.
Thus Klink manages a difficult dialectic: finding expression for the stunned fact of loss, finding residence in the present, and finally accepting both the traumatic past and the empty but promising present. Where Wilson finds comfort in close-ups, Klink scans the wide horizon of “a world where we feel very little” to find the prospects of a similar vitality. Sometimes, as both of these fine poets show, solitude, estrangement, even desolation, may be turned to a powerful consolation: “The love you feel for what you’ve lost.”
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Editors: Deborah Chasman, Joshua Cohen