by Emily Wilson
University of Iowa Press, $16 (paper)
Emily Wilson’s second collection, Micrographia, takes its name from a book of detailed illustrations of flora and fauna produced by the seventeenth-century natural philosopher Robert Hooke with the aid of early microscopic lenses. With a similarly keen eye, Wilson’s concise lyrics look closely at the contemporary natural world and probe its backyard secrets: “Things turned in on themselves / surfaces that were hidden inside plumage” (“Protea”). Sometimes bearing taxonomic titles (“Camperdown Elm” and the comparatively epic two-page “Red-Legged Kittiwake”), the poems veer far from their self-identified subjects while sustaining with ease the energy of their thinking. Micrographia falls almost too easily into a tradition of American lyric observation made famous by the investigations of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, and made dull by the work of many others. But Wilson is a worthy heir to Moore and Bishop precisely because her poems know their form of paying attention is more agitated than it is accurate, which they show with clipped consonants and harsh vowels, as in “Picturesque”: “Most acts, if they are acts / are not primary acts / amid the -taxis / of other actions / are they.” Her faith is in voice, not vision, and the vocal stops and starts inside the poems emphasize obsession more than they express tact or a desire for objectivity: “The parts have no portion why not? / They cannot be counted why not? / They make the thing whole? / It grew at that slant.” Consequently, Wilson’s memorable endings leave open questions and unsolved predicaments: “So the eye has no end / going on outside its compulsion. / Then the colors coruscate also. / Then what does the bulk of it do. / A rudiment-hoard. / Then what.” Precise but never precious, Micrographia does vulnerable and strange work.