The Great Medieval Yellows
The contemporary moment of critique manifests, among other ways, in a pressing call for artwork that overtly raises consciousness of the racism, classism, sexism, and environment-gutting anthropocentrism permeating our culture. Answering this call, many poetic projects such as Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire confront the deeply-entrenched narrative and rhetorical frames serving power structures—frames that secure relationships between self and other in a perpetual network of damage and exploitation.
Augmenting this critique is a hunger for other forms of thinking and being that re-tool subject-object relations (the core of self-other relations) so sufficiently that the old frames no longer make sense because what we are looking at—what we are living—is not the type of thing that can be understood and represented in such a way. As the philosopher Timothy Morton writes:
a fresh approach to objects as profoundly strange, uncanny, withdrawn, unknowable entities, as strange as the thing we call “subject”—maybe “subject” is also one of these strange entities, not something totally different from a book of matches or a nebula. Ontology should respect the strangeness and uncanniness of things, acknowledging that objects are unique entities, and thus ontologically separate, no matter how much they may interact or be entangled with one another.1
Perhaps, then, even “framing” has no purchase at all. While this may seem a utopian project recent philosophy (object oriented ontology and new materialism) argues that our current frameworks are still grounded in conventional subject-object models while quotidian aspects of contemporary experience ache for another model.
Beginning with The Keep, published in 2001, through Micrographia (2010) and into The Great Medieval Yellows, Emily Wilson has developed a body of work that, like the natural world she conveys, encompasses great range: now torrent, now ripple, now swell of grasses and the sea. This most recent book focuses on making—techné, art as craft—concerns itself with ecopoetics and ekphrasis, and contains Wilson’s most compressed work yet. Nearly all of the poems glimmer and shiver, jut and thrust, alive with delicate voracity. But they are not merely, or solely, beautiful creatures. Rather, the work’s tamping and honing create a series of generative, explosive experiences attuned to the world in a way that ultimately suggests—perhaps even demands—a re-tooling of subject-object relations to reflect both the mysterious autonomy of the non-human and its deep entwinement with us.
Encountering Wilson’s latest poems is akin to coming upon an orchid in the wild. Just as the carnal beauty of the plant stuns, a sonic richness, exotic (because precise) word-choice, and sculptural beauty in The Great Medieval Yellows encourage me to remain on the surface of the work. It is easy to become transfixed by descriptive phrases of the natural world like “Calcareous crinoline/ what’s unwound in” (42) and “dense infringings on/ sort of a rote/ blue openwork” (27) and “a small Egyptian frond/ tree, tissue trace incised in stone” (44).
However, just as I eventually come to realize that the orchid doesn’t appear a certain way to please my human eye, but is instead a complex organism engaged in its own interactive life-death work, Wilson’s book doesn’t merely please. Rather, it rewards careful reading and re-reading—to lending oneself, slowly, to the poems’ complexities. Words and phrases like “spars” “semaphores” “dinge” “pileated seed-crown,” and “glister-ground” beg not only to be looked up, but their etymologies traced, the (extinct/endangered) lexicons from which they come considered, their sounds repeated and savored. Wilson’s syntax—an intoxicating combination of elision and rhythm at play along grammatically stable sentence units and sturdy lines—rewards unpacking and invites meditation on relationships between part and whole. Sure, you might read the book quickly in a single sitting, and as result achieve a lingering sensation much like the rust of pollen residue. But a slower reading grants greater reward, particularly in suggesting ways we might reconfigure our relationship to the nonhuman.
Take, for instance, the collection’s title poem:
THE GREAT MEDIEVAL YELLOWS
Massicot mosaic gold
saffron buckthorn weld—
how to get your gilding on
it will not take part in
ruination of the blue.
Or drubbing through the known earths
in preparation for
would it be upheld,
What you are here for
your ardent understanding of
what self in many
that make it so like self—
suckers through the roots of
the undulant woad
it has been living
oxidizing under the topic
brilliance, hematite, lime white,
a little pinch in the dish
you have only to wait for it.
“Massicot mosaic gold”—is the chant-like beginning, attention fixed on materiality. “Materiality” because “Massicot” and “mosaic gold” name minerals, and “m” is the sound made with closed lips—i.e., when the face is in closest proximity to the earth. But also because this moment of language itself has been cut from another text and placed into the poem. Courtesy of Wilson’s epigraph, a sentence from Daniel V. Thompson’s history of medieval paint technology, The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, the transformation is made visible. Thompson’s sentence, “The great medieval yellows apart from gold, are orpiment and ochre, giallorino (probably usually massicot), mosaic gold, saffron, buckthorn, and weld,” folds neatly into Wilson’s “massicot mosaic gold/ saffron buckthorn weld.”
Notice the fracturing and compression that the original sentence undergoes as it moves into the poem: Wilson makes the first four words of the sentence her poem’s title, excises the next 10 words, and picks up Thompson’s highly rhythmic list, sans comma and and—“massicot mosaic gold saffron buckthorn weld”—to create her first two lines. The elements of the sentence Wilson has decided to keep show her propensity for lexical particularity and musical richness, cutting out portions of the source that are rhetorical or evaluative like “apart from gold” and “probably usually.” “Somatics,” we should not be surprised to realize, is an anagram for “massicot” and Wilson’s choice in this particular poem illustrates the quality of her attention throughout The Great Medieval Yellows, which she places on raw materiality and physicality—nouns and sounds—instead of upon rhetorical and narrative frameworks.
The movement to the opening lines of “The Great Medieval Yellows” from Thompson’s text also reveals something significant about the way in which The Great Medieval Yellows as a whole concerns itself with the stitching of the language-material of a poem—and by extension the human body—to objects in the world. Thompson’s sentence appears in a short sub-section of his book on painting titled Fustics and Others. “Fustics” are both bright yellow dyes and the plants—smoke trees (Young Fustic) and Dyer’s mulberry (Old Fustic)—from which the dyes are made. What is painted on a canvas—something yellow—is thus not a mere representation of something yellow. It is actually made of a yellow thing: the yellow wood of the tree becomes the yellow pigment of the paint, which is, itself, used to create a yellow object—let us here imagine a yellow tree—on a canvas.
By taking up Thompson’s language and transplanting it into her poem, Wilson creates a similar transfer of qualities, grafting the materiality of one lexicon into another. Working into this liminal space between textual and physical materials is one of Wilson’s primary actions and she performs this in other ways throughout the book. Poems like “Digitated Lemon” and “Siphonophore,” for instance, blur the lines between looking at images in illustrated natural histories and looking at objects as they are in the world. Poems have titles such as “Florilegium”—from the Latin flos (flower) and legere (to gather)—a medieval compilation of excerpts from other texts. And “Exhibition” and “Kunstkammer,” a cabinet of curiosities: often whole rooms given over to natural wonders emphasize the way thought collects—idiosyncratically, at times eccentrically—the world around it. These poems address spaces where objects and the language we use to pin them to the world commingle to create material-textual microenvironments.
Returning to “The Great Medieval Yellows,” we can see the way this focusing down into the blur where one material ends and another begins—catalyzed by grafting in Thompson’s text—extends through the poem into deep-tissue levels of word choice and syntax. Track and notice, for example, Wilson’s use of the pronoun “it” and the instability surrounding its occurrences. This personal pronoun, which we reserve for the world of animals and things, is always potentially indeterminate, but “it” in this poem, as in most other uses in the book, flits and flickers in and out of reference with such volatility I almost want to call it a verb. “It” is clearly important to Wilson’s project: for a book in love with particular vocabularies “it” is used surprisingly, pointedly, often. Within the span of 48 very precise poems, “it” “its” or “itself” appears 132 times. In many of these appearances, the pronoun serves to open the poem into layered readings, overlapping references such that different objects or states of being might fill the space held open by the pronoun. Both so familiar we hardly notice its utterance and entirely mysterious, “it” very well may be the signifier par excellence for exploring the profoundly uncanny and strange reality of the nonhuman.
The poem’s first “it” is fairly unambiguous, and refers back to the action of “gilding”:
Massicot mosaic gold
saffron buckthorn weld—
how to get your gilding on
it will not take part in
ruination of the blue.
However, notice the way that grammatical elision, tucked into—hidden in—the linebreak separating lines 3 and 4—“on” from “it”—makes the context of the pronoun strange, and invites questions of agency. This is registered most clearly if we flatten out the sentence:
Massicot mosaic gold saffron buckthorn weld—how to get your gilding on it will not take part in ruination of the blue.
Notice how the sentence changes depending on what we imagine has been elided between the words “on” and “it.” Is causation elided—a “so” or “therefore” snipped out? Restored, the phrase would read: “how to get your gilding on so it will not take part in ruination of the blue.” If so, the sentence reads as a question, and a question of ethics: how to gild, make more-precious, more godly. How to preserve or secure, such that the blue—the natural sky above, the undecorated—is not ruined. The first part of the sentence perhaps provides an answer: gild via materials that are, themselves, part of the natural world: massicot (lead oxide), mosaic gold (tin sulfide), saffron, buckthorn, weld.
Or, alternatively, does Wilson’s elision remove an end-stop, which we might replace thusly: “Massicot mosaic gold saffron buckthorn weld—how to get your gilding on. It will not take part in ruination of the blue.” This period, then, would split off “it will not take part in ruination of the blue” into a statement of certainty, a statement of refusal, an ethics of refusal. Furthermore, this version gives gilding—a material process and material artifact—itself agency: gilding will not take part in ruination of the blue.
With elision’s subtle crimping Wilson manages not only to condense the movement of the lines, but also, at the same time, open up this beginning moment of the poem to alternative readings, to questions of cause and effect, to the non-human, to the ethics of making, to the integrity of refusal. This blur, created by syntactic dislocation, is particularly effective because it is set in relief against the lexical precision of the poem’s opening nouns.
In the second sentence, reference (and not just grammatical context) begins to destabilize, again around the use of “it.” We can highlight this by re-stating the sentence without linebreaks:
Or drubbing through the known earths in preparation for the flesh would it be upheld, its chalcedony.
Here we might point “it,” again, to gilding. The sentence becomes: “Or drubbing through the known earths in preparation for the flesh would gilding be upheld, gilding’s chalcedony.” So: when we go drubbing—beating, thrashing—through “known earths” (both artist’s pigments hewn from the earth and earthy things: sex, eating, elimination) in preparation for the flesh, is what is gilded, masterful, upheld? While I like the sense of this sentence and its clarity, I’m also tempted to play with the word “would.” Notice that Wilson ends the passage with a period rather than a question mark. Mightn’t we read “would” as command rather than question, read “would” as “wish”? And so the sentence might become a directive: “Or drubbing through the known earths in preparation for the flesh wish gilding be upheld, gilding’s chalcedony.”
As a further alternative, we can point “it” to its most immediate antecedent, “flesh”: “Or drubbing through the known earths in preparation for the flesh would flesh be upheld, flesh’s chalcedony.” Upon this reading, a different tension is activated. Rather than an opposition between the earthly and the godly (the gilded), the known and the unknown, there is an opposition between the actions we do to daily prepare our flesh—as something “chalcedony.” That is to say, flesh as something of us that is part of the object-world, a sound-sibling to “chalice,” that is quartz-like: onyx, jasper, agate, these materials so much less mutable than daily drubbing. And so the question becomes: do our daily fleshy human actions support and uphold what is more mineral, more stable, in us?
Wilson’s work asserts that what is in us, what is us, is intertwined with what is in the world surrounding us: a realization that happens both in this poem and repeatedly throughout the book. It feels important to me to note that such realizations are never rendered directly as epiphanies or truths, delivered cleanly. Rather, such concepts are folded within, are part of the work’s compression. The third and final sentence of the poem is where this action happens here. Again, I will write the sentence out without lineation so that we might understand its sinewy qualities and the tactile sense Wilson gives an arc of thought:
What you are 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 oxidizing under the topic brilliance, hematite, lime white, a little pinch in the dish you only have to wait for it.
Notice that this sentence begins differently than the previous two short sentences. While those sentences focused primarily on the physical world of minerals, pigments, and earths, this sentence begins by foregrounding the human. We begin with the pronoun “you”—and with the very human concept of “what you are here for.” What you are here for: considerations such as this, we have learned to believe, are the very things that set humans above animals as conscious, thinking things. Ghosting behind this phrase is one of the most fundamental human questions: what are you here for? And also perhaps the even more human drive towards: what’s in it for me.
By the middle of the sentence, however, the instrumental quality of the language evaporates: the distinction between human and non-human, thought and physicality, breaks down, blurs. Any sense of the primacy of the thinking thing, as thinking thing, is sharply undermined: rhetorical structures are evacuated, agency is reformulated away from human use. “You are here,” the speaker tells us, “for your ardent understanding of what self” insofar as it is a self, “suckers through the roots of the undulant woad.” Notice that the self, halfway through the sentence, comes to be figured not as something autonomous among plants and animals, but as something that “suckers”—something that at the very least acts like a plant, and that may be, itself, part of a larger plant, one of its root suckers. And so we find ourselves to be a self-plant, an undulant woad defined not by our ability to create rational arguments at all but rather by our impulse to, plant-like, sucker through the roots of the woad/world. The human is only one object in the world among many.
As a final turn, by the end of the sentence even this act of self—this self-defining act of searching, grasping, suckering through the world—is futile. For what we have been seeking we needn’t seek: it does not seem to be the type of thing that one might seek, with seeking’s fantasy of possession and framing for display. Rather, “it” is something that will be given, will give itself, of its own agency. Notice that while Wilson leaves “it” indeterminate and thus not-frameable, she accentuates the materiality, the bodily feel of the word at the end of the poem by massing up the letter-form “i.” The “i” is visually present as a mark on the page, and the sharp “i” (/ɪ/) sound of “it” is repeated and echoed in “living,” “topic,” “brilliance,” “little,” “pinch,” and “dish” while the round sound of “I” (/aɪ/) filters through “oxidizing,” “hematite,” “lime,” and “white”—a filtering-through particularly resonant given the metallic “t’s” that tick with the memory of “it.” As such, the poem ends with an entanglement of pronouns and an entanglement of sounds. “I” and “it” are, if we listen, recognized as the autonomous morphemes we use to signify ourselves as human (I)—and not-ourselves, as non-human (it). At the same time, /aɪ/, /ɪ/, and / t/ act as phonemes—parts of a whole, constructing the other objects in the line. It is thus, the poem and the larger book propose, that as readers, as humans, as we wait we might attend the world. And that as we wait, we might listen.
1 Morton, Timothy. “Treating Objects Like Women: Feminist Ontology and the Question of Essence,” in Greta Gaard, Serpil Opperman and Simon Estok, eds., International Perspectives in Feminist Ecocriticism [Routledge, 2013], 65.