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What We’re Reading: The Great Medieval Yellows

2015 July 16
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What We're Reading

the great medieval yellows coverThe Great Medieval Yellows by Emily Wilson (Canarium Books, 2015)

Emily Wilson is a poet focused on minutiae and the undersides of things. The cover of this book is a detail photograph of lichens growing on stones, which is an apt way to think about Wilson’s poems in The Great Medieval Yellows. The epigraph of the book, where the title comes from, refers to the yellow and gold pigments used in medieval painting. “The great medieval yellows,” likewise, are details from a larger work. Wilson’s poems hover over particulars, zooming in as far as possible until the thing itself is blurry and changed.

The major unit of lyric poetry is the line and Wilson uses the line to great effect, focusing the reader’s attention on words and phrases, blurring syntax, and generally confounding the senses. Here, the title poem is helpful to read. It begins:

Massicot mosaic gold

saffron buckthorn weld—

how to get your gilding on

it will not take part in

ruination of the blue.

The general lack of punctuation “welds” the phrases together until one is forced to try to break them up by looking at lines individually. In doing so, specks of color and light begin to emerge in an image that’s difficult to make out. “Eidolon” is operates in much the same way:

Ivory under-throats just


you can see

for the mean

interceptions, pinged, pierced

several stingers[…]

The sharp language here—“pierced,” “stingers,” etc.—hint at the precision of a microscope.

In Wilson’s previous collection, Micrographia (University of Iowa Press, 2009) includes the phrase “the little-boned / complex underthing,” which seems to be the subject of many of her poems. “Secretive Soil Fauna,” in The Great Medieval Yellows, focuses on fungi and parasites that live in root systems of plants:

of the fungi

I have done


apart no crime

can come


sintered slew

mite and nematode

For Wilson, the microscopic isn’t just a way of looking at something; sometimes it is the thing itself.

Sometimes, though, it’s not enough to scrutinize an image or object; Wilson is also adept at dissecting her medium: the English language. Using words that have changed meaning, or creating her own words, Wilson creates another sort of microcosm:

[…] just

how is it you


think you can

come in here and


scut the fatty mastics



the antagonies

the parsimonies

“Secretive Soil Fauna”

Here, Wilson uses a late-Middle English verb-form of the word “scut,” meaning, “to shorten.” “Antagonies” and “parsimonies” Wilson created from the words “antagonist” and “parsimonious.” The heavy enjambments in Wilson’s poems force the reader to examine her diction searching for new meanings in these skittish lines.

In “Black Reaction” Wilson could be referring to herself when she writes,

what I’m scanning as

the sum of someone’s

scrupulous jitter-lines

tendered “from nature”

The effect of Wilson’s precision is an indistinct picture, often focused on images “tendered ‘from nature,’” that leaves the reader breathless and wondering. Her “jitter-lines” are like trying to look at something too close that just won’t snap into focus. In this way, Wilson’s voice is singular and kaleidoscopic, which is to say bright and shifting.

What other writers are stretching the uses of their language and phrasing?


Editor’s Note: This is the last (and fiftieth!) What We’re Reading review from our dear Timothy Otte, aka Chief Ampersand. Timothy is leaving his Hazel & Wren duties to further pursue and focus his own writing career. As an organization devoted to helping writers along their path, we feel that is the perfect reason to say goodbye. We will miss him terribly (as we’re sure you will, too), but we wish him all the very best writing, reading, and doing great things. You can follow him on the interwebs here: www.timothyotte.comTimothy, thanks for being our very first believer in this adventure called Hazel & Wren. xoxo, Hazel & Wren


What We’re Reading: Wildlives

2015 June 18
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What We're ReadingWildlives_-_CoverWildlives by Sarah Jean Alexander (Big Lucks Books, 2015)

Sarah Jean Alexander’s first book, Wildlives, centers itself squarely in the 21st-century. Poems name check Google, PayPal, and even indie hip hop band WHY?’s 2008 song “The Vowels, pt. 2.” However, these poems also reference heaven, rain, and stars, decidedly timeless tropes of poetry. Which is not to say that these poems are cliché, simply that they mash up old and new to explore loneliness, lust, and love in a modern world.

Wildlives is a mix of short lyric poems, prose poems, and what could be considered fiction. The hybridity of form rings as the differences between Tweet, Facebook update, Tumblr post, etc. Indeed, there are a handful of poems short enough to tweet:

The biggest stars in the universe are called red supergiants. I shouldn’t have let you become mine.


There is a mountain of words

I am frightened of

and you are at its peak.


God is a good man. We are an accidental series of events. Ideally, we should not be able to tell where one person leaves off and another starts.


That last one is a little too long to be a Tweet, but the point is that Alexander’s short poems tend to be very short, and it’s a fact that she’s an adept Twitter user (over 16,000 tweets as of the writing of this review). Still, these small poems pack in huge ideas.

Despite taking on big themes, Alexander’s poems remain breezy and conversational. The overall effect is like getting coffee with a friend who talks at length of her dreams, nightmares, anecdotes, and fantasies. In “Violent Knight” the speaker sees herself in the mirror as a bald woman: “I put myself into bed and dream about a day when the both of us are 85.” In one of the strongest pieces in the book, “Fit to Size,” the speaker tells us about her beliefs:

My relationship with religion

comes with many footnotes

and complicated annotations

and weaknesses

and mostly excuses

and Jesus Christ

it freaks people out

when I tell them I still pray

before I fall asleep every night,

but have you ever thought

about how efficient

a person’s smile is

as a form of communication[.]

These micro moments—a smile, a prayer before sleep—enter into the macro: how do I believe, and in what, if I believe in anything at all?

The book is divided into three sections, the middle of which is a single piece called “Share Your Fears with Mine.” Made up of ten prose blocks, the piece begins:

The living room could no longer hold all of the dead fish that had been piling up for the past week, so we opened the windows and let the tiny silver bodies spill out onto the street.

The piece follows two characters, including the speaker, as they attempt different ways of being intimate. In one section, “You turned to me and lifted your shirt a few inches and said, Touch your belly to my belly[…]”, while in another the characters teach stones how to stack themselves into a “fortress” on which they hang a sign that says “NOT DEAD INSIDE.

While some of these poems may strike the reader as akin to social media, their sentiment is earnest. Alexander is a poet unafraid to engage with big questions, unafraid to attempt answering them. Using contemporary diction Alexander updates tried-and-true poetic images to create poems that live comfortably in the age of the Internet.

What other poets are using modern forms, language, and images to engage with big themes and questions?


What We’re Reading: The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa

2015 May 21

What We're Reading

SagawaCoverSPDThe Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa translated by Sawako Nakayasu (Canarium Books, 2015)

Sawako Nakayasu’s wonderful translation of The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa, released earlier this year, was my first look at Sagawa’s work. Due to Sagawa’s untimely death, it is a slim volume, at 136 pages, but it’s definitive and is an excellent introduction to Sagawa’s work. Nakayasu includes an introduction to Sagawa’s life and work, and translates every poem and prose piece included in the 2010 Japanese edition of Sagawa’s Collected Works. Nakayasu’s introduction gives Sagawa’s basic biography and context for her work among her peers and cultural history. Not a complete biography, certainly, but is satisfying as an introduction to the work presented.

Chika Sagawa was born in 1911 in Yoichi, Hokkaido, which is “in the very far north of Japan, nestled between the mountains and the sea, buried in deep snow for much of the winter.” She moved to Tokyo in 1928 and was introduced to the literary community by her brother. She became an influential member of the avant garde and Modernist scene and began publishing poetry in 1930.

In 1935, Chika was diagnosed as being in the late stages of stomach cancer, and she succumbed to the disease in January 1936. Her very last publications were excerpts of diary entries from her stay in the hospital[.]

She was just 24, but her work has remained influential.

As Nakayasu tells us, Sagawa was writing in the period before World War II and shortly after “the radical art group MAVO was formed” in 1923. Forms like haiku and tanka dominate the Western view of Japanese poetry, but Sagawa’s work is not heavily formal and uses many of the avant garde impulses introduced to Japanese art by MAVO and others. Sagawa’s work is heavily image driven and often concise, a nod to the well-known forms, but happily blends urban and nature images, as in “One Other Thing:”

A thicket of asparagus

Dives into the dirty afternoon sun

Their stems cut off by glass

Blue blood streams down the window

And on the other side

Is the sound of a fern unfurling.

One of the most striking poems in the collection is “” a brief piece that sets up a surreal image before turning it on its head:

Under a row of trees a young girl raises her green hand.

Surprised by her plant-like skin, she looks, and eventually removes her

silk gloves.

In just two lines, Sagawa slows time and focuses the reader’s attention on a few important details: the trees, the girl, and her hand. By waiting to reveal the gloves, the reader is as surprised as the girl by the color of her hand.

Interestingly, because of Sagawa’s early death, she was unable to choose final versions for some of her poems. The Japanese editors included variations of some poems, and Nakayasu follows their lead. The “Newly Collected” section includes a poem called “Flowers Between the Fingers” that features a section that ends:

Under a row of trees a young girl raises her green hand, calling someone. Looking in surprise at her plant-like skin, she eventually removes her gloves.

Elsewhere in the book, the poems “Beard of Death” and “Illusory Home” both open: “A chef clutches the blue sky. Four fingerprints are left.” Are these new poems or simply different drafts of the same work? Which was written first? Does it matter? By including these variations, Nakayasu gives us a glimpse at Sagawa’s process.

Anyone interested in Japanese poetry would do well to add The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa to his or her library. Nakayasu’s translations are sensitive and confident and her introduction serves its purpose well. I’m curious to see if more translations and more criticism of Sagawa’s life and work come out now that this fantastic collection brings her to a wider audience.

What are your favorite collections of translated poems?


What We’re Reading: Brand New Ancients

2015 April 16
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What We're Reading

brand new ancients coverBrand New Ancients by Kate Tempest (Bloomsbury, 2015)

My first encounter with Kate Tempest’s work came not long ago when her song “Lonely Daze” was featured on NPR’s All Songs Considered. Hosts Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton mentioned that Tempest is a poet in addition to being a talented emcee, so I looked up her biography. Tempest’s credits include a handful of albums, including 2014’s brilliant Everybody Down, two collections of shorter poems, and Brand New Ancients, a poem “written to be read out loud,” which won the 2012 Ted Hughes Award for Poetry. (The poem was originally performed in 2012, published in 2013, with the U.S. edition just published in 2015.)

The narrative of the poem focuses on two London families whose lives and fates intersect in the ways ancient stories of gods and humans often do: sex, lust, violence, intimacy, and redemption. Tempest’s project differs from most mythologies, though, in that the gods and humans are one and the same. “In the old days / the myths were the stories we used to explain ourselves,” Tempest explains in the poem’s opening. “But how can we explain the way we hate ourselves?” She goes on:

We are perfect because of our imperfections.

We must stay hopeful;

We must stay patient—

because when they excavate the modern day

they’ll find us: the Brand New Ancients

In many ways, the closest touchstone to Tempest’s project is Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which is, of course, an odd thing to say of a British poet. Both have long lines and both include the gritty details of daily living:

The flat’s a state, but [Mary] can’t bear to mop

the floor or put the bins out, so she just stares at the TV,

she pours a vodka into a dirty tea cup,

she’s put on weight, she’s miserable,

she knows that she should have a bath and clean up,

but instead she’s getting pissed on her own watching the chat shows.

She puts a pizza in the microwave and eats it off her knees.

She chain-smokes, drinking till she starts to feel quease,

and then when Clive gets home from school,

that’s where he finds her, fast asleep.

The daily grind is not the only similarity to Whitman. Early in Tempest’s poem is a page long mantra that lists all of the gods:

The gods are in the betting shops

the gods are in the caff

the gods are smoking fags out the back

the gods are in the office blocks

the gods are at their desks

the gods are sick of always giving more and getting less

The list goes on and on, reminiscent of the 18th section “Leaves of Grass'” Book Two:

See, ploughmen ploughing farms—see, miners digging mines— see, the numberless factories,

See, mechanics busy at their benches with tools—see from among them superior judges,

philosophs, Presidents, emerge, drest in working dresses […]

Like Whitman, Tempest invokes a range of people and professions, setting them next to one another in a grand display of democracy.

Considering the grand ambition set out at the top of the poem, it does feel like a wasted opportunity to focus on such a small group of people. In all, there are nine main characters and about as many named who make brief appearances:

There was Sam with the squint

and the dog called Darrel,

four legs and a head

sticking out of a fluffy barrel.


There’s Geraldine, she used to be a nurse;

she hangs out with Davey getting drunk all day,

reading yesterday’s papers. These are good people by nature,

they just got worn out faces. Gloria serves them happily […]

The effect of focusing on these nine characters is that they become elevated over the others, contradicting the democratic impulse found earlier in the piece. At their best, the cameo appearances are reminiscent of Nazim Hikmet’s singular novel-in-verse Human Landscapes from My Country, which features, in the course of over 15,000 lines, dozens of varied-length portraits of all kinds of Turkish people during the first half of the 20th Century. Tempest’s poem, by contrast, focuses on working class, probably white people (though, race is never mentioned), who surely don’t represent the whole of England’s diversity.

Despite a missed opportunity or two, Brand New Ancients is an ambitious piece and worth reading more than once, out loud, preferably with friends. Reading, one falls into the rhythm of the text, tumbling from moment to moment watching the lives of these characters unravel, re-ravel, and wrap around one another. Considering Tempest’s output this early in her career, it’s safe to assume there’s more where this came from, hopefully as genre bending and empathetic as Brand New Ancients.

What other writers are pushing the boundaries of genre to create multifaceted, ambitious texts?