It’s an autumn night in Bloomsbury and the audience in St George’s Church is sitting in rapt silence while Anne Michaels reads from her new collection. She is an excellent reader – calm, rich, serious – and the audience are so absorbed that they forget to clap between poems.
When I meet her the following morning, I comment on the strong connection the audience had to her words, so much so that a woman crept up to the stage and whispered, ‘I feel you wrote that just for me’ after Michaels read an as-yet unpublished poem called ‘May Love Seize You’.
‘It’s a privilege,’ Michaels says, ‘because it means that someone has been completely receptive, they’ve truly listened with their heart and their head. It’s a delicate line because I do want the work to find the reader in that way. In an ideal world, you want language to transform and in my work I want that transformation to be positive and generative – even the darkness [of the content]. If we don’t know how to make darkness generative then we’re in trouble because otherwise so much of life experience can’t be sidestepped.’
Michaels speaks about writing with the ardour of someone who is absolutely sure in their vocation. ‘I always knew,’ she says. ‘I knew pre-language. And that’s a mystery: how do we know what we were born to do? It’s a blessing to have that absolute certainty. But even when I was small, I knew there would be a long apprenticeship, and that was fantastic, the idea that you would have to work to find words to describe something that was inexpressible. Why not spend your life doing that? It makes sense that it would take a lifetime to learn how to do it.’
Both on stage and on the page, Michaels’s deep insight, nobly worked language and moral generosity have a soothing, improving effect on those who encounter her words. Born in Toronto, a city for which she serves as poet laureate, she is that lucky author whose words have been translated into forty-five languages and received numerous honours including the inaugural Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction), the Guardian Fiction Award and whose craft bridges poetry, fiction, ruminative non-fiction, libretti and art essays.
Her first three volumes of poetry – The Weight of Oranges, Miner’s Pond and Skin Divers, published between 1986 and 1999 – are available in a single volume published by Bloomsbury, while her novel Fugitive Pieces was published in 1997 to enormous success. It was followed in 2009 by her second novel, The Winter Vault. The novels are expansive, politicised and international, taking in Nazi-occupied Poland, the dismantling and rebuilding of Egyptian temples and Canadian seaways. Yet, at the same time her prose is also fractional, intimate, mapping the many subtle permutations of parental and marital relationships as well as the relationship between writer and reader and between artist and inspiration. Both novels deal with loss of home, homeland, sense of self, identity and history – but also with their rediscovery, reconstruction and regeneration.
In her haunting new poetry collection, All We Saw, she commemorates the deaths of several close friends and explores the many subtle and contingent connections between love, artistic creation and remembrance. That said, as a poetic narrator, Michaels is equivocal rather than definitive, well aware of literature’s ability to damage, derail and obscure as well as to express emotions, convey sensations or bring things to life. The poems celebrate the subtle powers of language but also the many ways in which language cannot always describe suffering. She writes about the ‘tormenting literature that names forever’, ‘haunting and naming’ while her sparse, spiny lines are sharper and less forgiving than ‘the morbid mortal beauty of this sonnet or that’. reflects many different types of love relationship, from the familial to the erotic, but love is always finely balanced on a knife edge: ‘error avoided in an instant’, the line ‘I cannot live without you’ followed immediately by ‘This too shall pass’.
‘I always knew,’ she says. ‘I knew pre-language. And that’s a mystery: how do we know what we were born to do?’
I ask how she could look so closely into grief and still maintain the joy of an artist exploring their creativity and she admits, ‘When looking into things that are incredibly difficult and painful, you don’t use the word joy – but there is joy in the activity of it, knowing that you’re looking at something bigger than you are, there’s always more than can be said, more than you can know, more than you can prove. That means [that writing is] a never-ending engagement.’ She adds with a wry smile that every project is ‘a totally new and humiliating challenge. It’s the thing that you cannot do. You have no choice but to be utterly winded and humbled by the thing that’s ahead of you.’ At the same time, she makes it clear in All We Saw that there are certain things only gaps and silences can convey: ‘the dash at the end of a phrase’ or ‘the silence where love emerges’.
Landscapes pervades all her work, with massive features like lagoons and mountains that are not described in monumental terms but in language which is human-scaled: in All We Saw it’s ‘the folding dusk’, the ‘salt and scratch’ of stars, the sea and sky both described as ‘grey uneven ground’. Michaels acknowledges a ‘sense of communion with place – watching the sea and knowing that there’s a knowledge in that gradation of water. In that silent communion, we have a relationship to place, if we allow ourselves to have one. It’s also about fostering a relationship to time, not just location, because when you’re in nature there isn’t a sense of wasting time. You’re present.’ This is very evident in the collection, where Michaels combines landscape with artistic creation and emotion. A bird is like a ‘black page turning / the message folded and unfolded’, the ‘torn edge of the sea’ is like the ‘edge of paper’ and the sea is ‘the pencil’s line / the poem’s line’ as though observing the landscape and writing are one and the same.
In the same way that she brings nature into a relationship with the human, Michaels’ poems in All We Saw also bring the uglier elements of grief and the details of watching someone die into the lyrical poetic realm: mist is ‘X-Ray grey’, suspended like ‘an IV drip.’ ‘All the equipment that becomes a part of daily existence [when someone’s ill] was utterly foreign before,’ she says with a sigh. ‘I used the image of the IV drip as a measure of time, and the solitariness of that image is important – because it’s horrific, really.’
I suggest poetry as the best home for contemplating the most significant experiences in human lives and she agrees that ‘literature creates a different sort of space that is connected to thinking rather that reacting. We’re moving at such speed [in terms of communication and the media] that we’re acting before we think. The instant response is so marvellous but so dangerous because human beings also have a capacity for discipline, and discipline is a beautiful thing, it allows us to make sense of things at a level that’s beyond instinct. The page creates that space – but that space is more and more threatened. People are less accommodating of things that take time and that’s unfortunate, because there’s a pleasure in delving into something.’
Michaels is a generous interviewee and a sanguine, charismatic woman with a talent for absorbent and attentive listening. During our meeting, we break off intermittently from talking about poetry and her life, to speculating about political events and there’s a feeling that our literary conversation is happening in an almost furtive secret space while much darker events continue overhead.
Is literature one way of looking at or even resolving current affairs? I ask her. ‘It’s very hard to see where we are at the moment. What is to be learned is there, waiting to be looked at in the future.’ Over her writing career, she has taken on huge themes including the Second World War and the Middle East. ‘I think in the contest between good and evil, evil is stronger in direct confrontation, but good endures while evil consumes itself. People have phenomenal degrees of strength and resilience – strength to keep on digging through that tunnel, because it’s what we have to do. It’s also about taking the longer view. Sometimes the work of one person only finds its completion in someone else, or in the next generation. It’s a human endeavour.’
‘All We Saw’ by Anne Michaels is published by Bloomsbury
Bidisha’s Unbound choice is Girl with a Gun