With its plain and elegant construction that evades the orientating features of title, spine, back copy, Correspondences, Anne Michaels’ beautifully unconventional book-length poem, invites the reader into a pleated Möbius strip. “Forgive me, for beginning / at the end,” she writes in the midst of a poignant and evocative elegy whose very form echoes the continuous cycle of birth, life, and mourning.
The book-with-a-twist comes enveloped in a handsome grey sleeve. Sliding it off, one enters a realm of poetic text spliced with Bernice Eisenstein’s portraiture. The design allows the book to be read from end to end and back again in a continuous loop. One side of the single accordion page is an alternating sequence of words and images, portraits of a cast of characters set alongside excerpts of their writings. Eisenstein’s images are simple, painted in memory’s muted shades, the palette tinged with melancholy. The other side bears Michaels’s own long poem.
This poem, a memorial to her late father, is set within a much larger territory of loss. At either end, the book opens to flyleaves featuring its dramatis personae, brief biographies of Eisenstein’s subjects that converge around the central figures of Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs at one end and Osip and Nadezhda Mandalstam on the other. The names are familiar: Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka. These are Isaiah Michaels’s contemporaries, the European intelligentsia uprooted and scattered by the havoc of the Second World War. The collected sketches of their ordeals gesture toward a loss of unimaginable proportions—not only of so many lives, but of a future that might have been.
Cubist painter Albert Gleizes wrote of the Great War: “The past is finished…the present conflict throws into anarchy all the intellectual paths of the prewar period.” Michaels attends to the turmoil, disruption and violence of the years that followed, when not even the landscape itself was firm. “Names were changed / ronger, grincer / so valleys and mountains / would not be stained”—an act that speaks to the power of words to carry and convey memories.
Yet steadfastness, love’s strong and stubborn abiding, is as strong a theme in this book as are upheaval and loss. Again and again, the poem circles back to remembrance, revealing “the mourner / who accompanies the body, so the soul is never, / not for a single moment, alone.” There is forgetting here, too, as Isaiah’s own memory dims, becoming “the buried book,” his mind settling into “the repetition of the plough horse, / majestic head bent to earth, / turning the same direction / at the end of each row.” This image, like so many others in the book, reverberates through time, portraying both her father’s dotage as well as past injustices, with humanity struggling forward under their weight.
If “a conversation,” as Michaels suggests, “can become the third side of the page,” Correspondences is a book of many pages, many conversations. Within them, loved and remembered spirits step forward to “smell their favourite dish,” “hear his own language / her own song, mother and father / tongue,” the third sides becoming a warm tribute to their lives.
Emily McGiffin’s second collection of poetry, Pteropod, is forthcoming from Pedlar Press this fall. She currently lives in Toronto.
This review originally appeared in print in Arc 74.
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