by Fionn Meade
Whether slipping under the sheets as a late lover to the great Italian modernist painter Amadeo Modigliani or donning the seventeenth-century scientific cloak of the revolutionary mathematician Johannes Kepler, Canadian poet Anne Michaels offers a series of persona poems that ruminate and seduce with an erudite yet sexy seriousness. Michaels landed squarely on the literary map with her highly-acclaimed first novel Fugitive Pieces, and it is undoubtedly her success as a novelist that has afforded this troika of companion books, previously published separately by smaller Canadian presses, the unusual opportunity of appearing together in one volume their first time stateside. When read together as the author intended, these poems reveal, much like the work of her compatriot and supporter, Michael Ondaatje, an apprenticeship in the attentions of poetry that serves to both illuminate and extend her more well-known prose.
Offset by ephemeral lyrics about family, lovers, and geography, it is Michaels's repeated visitations to the lives of artists, scientists, and thinkers that most vividly enwrap the reader in her world. Both furtive and essayistic, Michaels deftly re-creates the historic moment of an idea as if it were her own. In her portrait of the embattled Kepler, for instance, Michaels delivers not so much an authentic 'voice from the past' as the impassioned voice of the awe-inspired:
For twenty-two years I looked for ratios—
in sizes of the planets, in solar distances
and lengths of orbits—until God whispered:
measure not from the earth but from the sun.
And the heavens opened.
Just as Fugitive Pieces so successfully undertook the harrowing and cinematic journey of a Holocaust survivor from the abnegation of a childhood hiding alone in the forests of Poland to his ultimate affirmation as a mature artist unafraid to excavate the past and thereby emerge fully into the new world Toronto in which he finds himself, so Michaels here fearlessly inhabits stories of political exile, disappearance and extreme loss. Though not hers, these stories come to life within a stunning array of images and voices sewn together by conciseness, accuracy, and empathy; animating Michaels's love affair with history is a world of close research caught in a web of luminous moments.
In "What the Light Teaches" which eulogizes the great Russian poets Anna Ahkmatova, Marina Tsvaetaeva and Osip Mandelstam, whose hardships under Stalinism extended from decades of censorship in the case of Ahkmatova to Mandelstam's imprisonment, torture and eventual death in a labor camp, Michaels seamlessly drops the reader into a scene from their time, closing in like a moving camera, arresting the reader's attention with that of the observer's and hence the lost poet's:
There are voices we hear
but can't hear, like the silence
of parents rounded up in a town square,
who stopped their tongues in time,
saving children by not calling out to them in the street.
Hearing these voices 'we hear but can't hear' is a gift that imbues all of Michaels's work, whether it be the imagined musings of Antarctic explorer Robert Scott's widow after his tragic journey south to the Pole, or the grief spilled over into the notebooks of French scientist Marie Curie upon her husband's sudden death in a Paris street accident.
Divining her way from the solid ground of research into the emotional experience of history, Michaels allows the reader to breathe from inside the past, to traipse through the streets on the arm of 'Modi' (Modigliani) the man rather than the posthumous genius, when he still traded canvases for cheese and eggs—"royalty in trousers held up with rope." Poems contrives sleight-of-hand imagery within an essay's denouement to form a series of passionate love poems, 'love' being in Michaels's world "always a form of time travel." And so the reader falls repeatedly in love—the poet a sort of procuring hostess—with the infinite firmament, the shoes– of a painter, the bend of Rilke's elbow at his desk, the closeness of a river to the housethe small lessons of beauty to be rescued from history.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000