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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: 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: Madame X by Darcie Dennigan

2013 January 17
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What We're Reading

Darcie Dennigan’s Madame X (Canarium Books, 2012) has sat on my shelf intimidating me for the last six months. I’ve read the first poem, “The Youngest Living Thing in L.A.” several times during those months, but only recently was I able to tackle the rest. The thirty poems in Dennigan’s collection are dreamlike and sprawling. Like ivy on a wall, they creep up on you, wrapping their tendrils around you until you are as obsessed with their themes as Dennigan is. Religion and sex mix and mingle into a single focus: birth. Recalling the shorter work of Samuel Beckett, Dennigan’s poems are prosaic and lofty, yet chatty.

The conflation of religion and sex is nothing new, especially in poetry. “Song of Songs” is the beginning of this tradition, and St. Augustine continued it. In one poem the persona says, “Even if I believed the Word became flesh, well— / I’d probably just want to have sex with it.” While the sex in Madame X rarely seems to aspire to such heights as orgasmic rapture, there is a sense that perhaps it could become like the “interpenetration” of angels: “[…] it’s purely, purely, a spiritual thing. So as many positions / as they tried, as much licking, they made no babies, no diseases—only hymns.” Or, put another way in another poem: “Paradise is just sex sans bodies[.]”

Interestingly, the word “lust” is only used once, and in that instance it refers to insects. Sex in these poems seems to be about exploration of the inner self, rather than about sex in and of itself. And that’s when the sex isn’t about procreation, as it often is. Birth and motherhood are odd obsessions for a book whose poems are often set in apocalyptic wastelands, but ultimately, birth becomes as foreign and unknown as the death we expect to encounter. In the first three poems alone there are four separate babies, including a set of triplets, and several mentions of “the children.” Nearly every poem features a child or a mother, or a desire to be a mother. By the end of the collection, lust seems inappropriate when the point of sex in these poems is to create.

Beckett’s influence is everywhere in Madame X. “Don’t be bored, don’t be lazy, don’t be trivial, and don’t be proud …” one poem begins:

Okay baby … ? He says to me … Baby … Sit down … There was a bomb … a bomb in a crowd … one town over … Oh … I hadn’t … No you wouldn’t have he says … Because I’m so … ? Because of the blackout … They’re blacking all the good news out … ! He grabs my foot … in … fierceness …

—The Revolution

It’s hard not to think of Beckett’s shorter works like “Not I” and “Play” when reading lines like those above. Dennigan’s poems read like monologues, spoken by people who aren’t sure anyone is listening. Clipped sentences and often incomplete phrases give you the feeling of trying to catch a radio broadcast, but struggling to get a fix on the signal. Other times, however, the voice of a poem sounds like that of a friend relaying a strange story to you over a drink. Both voices are alienating in their own way, yet you can’t look away. These poems commit to their world so fully that you can’t help but explore it with them.

The use of monologue and mask suit the form of the poems well. Blocks of text fill whole pages, much like the form of a play on the page. Rather than line breaks, Dennigan often substitutes ellipses, as in the passage above. These ellipses are a place to pause, but also unsettling omissions, as if we’re not being told the whole truth, or the speaker is unable to tell us. They also allow the poems to trail off without a clear resolution. We might return to a poem and find that more text has been added, more information has come in. But, of course, it never does, so the reader must let their imagination follow the direction the poem points.

Dennigan’s poems, often two or three pages in length, with their bricks of text, put me off of reading this collection for too long. The more I sit with them, the stranger they seem, but the more I find in them. I can wander through Dennigan’s apocalypse and find new ways of hearing the voices in these poems. Though they never seem to fully resolve, they’re still carefully written and keep teh reader returning to specific lines, whole poems and, eventually, the whole collection.

What books are sitting on your shelf that you keep picking up, but haven’t yet read?

What We’re Reading: I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say

2012 August 16
by Timothy

What We're Reading

I listen to a lot of punk and hip hop in addition to being a voracious reader. As such, I’ve encountered a lot of slam and spoken word. I struggle with these genres because they quickly fall into tropes of form and rarely have any life on the page, yet every time I see punk and hip hop groups perform I think, “What if poetry were more like this? More energetic, more urgent?” Inevitably, though, that urgency is lost on the page, or seems trite when performed. Anthony Madrid’s new collection I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say (Canarium Books, 2012) is carefully composed, while maintaining an element of the improvisational. Madrid has managed to cram the intensity and rhythm of the music I love onto the page, without losing any power. In fact, these poems are so energetic they seem to leap off the page, demand to be read, and then wrestled back before you can move onto the next.

Early on in the collection, Madrid—who uses himself as a character in the poems—says, “Whoever reads more than a dozen ghazals at a time will be overstimulated.” Indeed, these poems, which Madrid calls ghazals, can be overstimulating. Though the energy of these poems is such that you want to keep reading, taking the collection slowly is best in order to fully appreciate their strength. Handily, Madrid has broken the book up into 6 sections, each with between 10 and 12 poems. There are no section breaks between poems, so you have to pay attention to the poem numbers at the top of the page: 1:4, 3:9, 6:1, and so on. Though not easily identifiable, sections have themes that hold them together, a mark of Madrid’s ability to craft a whole book, not just compelling individual poems.

Madrid’s diction in these poems is an odd mix of highly colloquial and oddly archaic, often within the same line. Phrases like, “MADRID, you effervescing piece of fuckass magma!” are highly surreal, yet by virtue of being so specific, very real. The effect is that Madrid becomes a sort of street preacher in a busy city, mixing his already jumbled metaphors with the language of the everyday, a performance you’d see at the bus stop or subway platform.

Performances can bring nuance and double meaning to a piece that is lost when the text is written down, though, by the same token, line break can alter meaning in much the same way. Madrid has employed a number of tricks to suggest ways of reading the piece to the reader, bringing some of the performative nuance back. Traditional moves like line break and rhyme are used to great effect throughout the text, but Madrid also uses vertical bars to force a caesura into his lines, creating a softer break than the hard enjambment of a line break. This typographic trick is used throughout the book, but is especially well done in “Rhymes” whose last three stanzas read:

You’re on your own and off your meds. Greens and yellows, blues and reds.

It’s only with certain groups of friends | you dare undermine the uplift.


So, purple-orange, yellow-blue. Polly, gimme your answer true.

I order demand and require that you | tear it, little parrot.


So, let’s hear it all for the CASH MACHINE. Purple-orange, yellow, green.

Dirty Bomb and Laser Beam | are here to collect the rent.

The vertical bar acts as a crux around which the lines turn, causing the reader to pause before moving to the end of the phrase. Also used throughout the book, and demonstrated here, are words set in small caps that call focus to names or objects differently than full caps or bold letters. Finally, Madrid also uses accent marks to lightly emphasize words, but not so much as words in italics. Using these varying levels of emphasis, Madrid brings more layers of nuance to his poems than is usually possible.

In I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say, I found the energy and exuberance from rap and punk, with the carefully crafted line break and typographic elements that can only be found on the page. Without a doubt, Madrid’s book is one of the most exciting collections I’ve read in a long time, and he has already become a poet whose tricks I’ve tried in my own poems. As a writer, finding a poet whose work teaches you new things is exciting, and I couldn’t be happier to have found this book. I have to respectfully disagree with the lines in one of the last poems in this book, “anyone can see / How much better this poetry would be if it were written by a twenty-five-year-old punk.” More punks should write poetry, but you’re doing fine on your own, Mr. Madrid. Keep ’em comin’.