To read a selection of Carol Moldaw's poetry


Carol is a Contributing Editor for The Drunken Boat

by Anne Michaels. Alfred A. Knopf 2000. 195 pp. $25.00 (hardcover)

Reviewed by
Carol Moldaw

***** There are some poets whose body of work reads like a single poem: an ongoing, deepening dialogue with the self and the world that is divided into separate poems, as if only for convenience. Consistency of voice, consistency of form, will create this impression; so will a body of work that eschews narrative or embeds it in a looping, ranging, open-ended development. Mainly, however, it is the pervasiveness of a poet's obsessions, the regular recurrence of key images and ideas, which tends to meld many poems into one. If some combination of the moon, memory, skin, light, language, rain, stars, lake, and stones, appears in virtually every poem, then whether that poem is in the voice of Marie Curie or a reminiscence of the poet's childhood, it will fit, like a star in a constellation, a constellation in a galaxy, into the larger whole. This quality of unity, blurring as it does the boundaries between individual poems, can be disorienting. Reading, one feels immersed in a self-sustaining all-enveloping universe. The reader may feel bowled-over yet distrustful.
***** To come across Anne Michaels' poems for the first time in Poems, a volume which collects three books—The Weight of Oranges, Miner's Pond, and Skin Divers—is to have such an immersion experience. In a note, Michaels says that the books, though published in Canada over a span of thirteen years, were written as companion volumes, and the poems do share a consistency of voice which becomes a consistency of vision. They tend to range far in a meandering non-linear way; and they are atmospheric, potentized by metaphor. In these lush, extravagantly imagistic, painterly poems, Michaels is concerned with the transformative power of looking: “The longer you look at a thing/the more it transforms” is from “Lake of Two Rivers,” the book's first poem; “To look until we're/seen. . . as if /just once, impossibly, /we'll catch the visible reflection/of what's invisible” from “Fontanelles,” the book's last.
***** Each of the three books within Poems is constructed in three sections. “Lake of Two Rivers,” a poem of family history, comprises the entire first section of The Weight of Oranges. The middle section is a substantial miscellany of fourteen poems, including elegies, poems addressed to friends, to a lover, and two “persona” poems, one written in the voice of the painter Pieter Brueghel, and the other, the title poem, in the voice of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. Every poem is addressed to a particular “you” and, overwhelmingly, the concerns are art and loss. The final section is again one long poem, “Words for the Body,” which, addressed to a childhood friend, explores the nature of artistic apprenticeship, the friend's to the piano, Michaels' to writing.
***** Miner's Pond likewise cups two long personal poems around a multi-poem middle section. The first long poem, “Miner's Pond” hauntingly examines the nature of the bond between siblings and near the end reveals itself to be an elegy written for an infant nephew. The last, “What the Light Teaches,” addressed to her sister, evokes the closeness of that relationship along with a complex association of place, family, the Holocaust, the Russian poets and the power of language. But instead of the miscellany of poems at the center of The Weight of Oranges, the center section of Miner's Pond consists almost entirely of persona poems written in the voice of historical figures drawn from the arts and science.
***** Skin Divers breaks this pattern of organization somewhat. The first section is a group of ecstatic, languorous poems exploring love and longing; the middle consists of only three poems: two persona poems (in the voices of Marie Curie and Kathleen Scott, whose husband was the Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott) and one elegy. The elegy reads like one of the historical poems, exemplifying how intertwined the personal and the historical are for Michaels: she addresses history on intimate terms, and finds a historical dimension to personal associations. The final section, the complex multi-layered “Fontanelles,” addressed to the father of Michaels' child, interweaves geologic and gestational time.
***** An apparent indirection or circling; an ability to pull one into the slightly amorphous world of the poem (“Lie down in the lake room,/in the smell of leaves still sticky from their birth”); a fondness for big statements (“we do not descend, but rise from our histories”); an imagery that weaves together the inner and the outer, the self and landscape (“Sensate weather, we are your body,/your memory”); the intermingling of personal and larger histories—all characterize Michaels' work. Even in Michaels' early poems, when personal experiences are her materials, the nature of memory itself, rather than particular memories, is a recurrent theme. Particular memories are but paths for understanding the nature of memory, and understanding memory a way of incorporating one's personal particulars:
If cut open, memory would resemble
a cross-section of the earth's core,
a table of geographical time.
Faces press the transparent membrane
between conscious and genetic knowledge.
A name, a word, triggers the dilatation.
Motive is uncovered, sharp overburden in a shifting field.
While Michaels often ventures rhetorically big statements like this, she usually couches them in metaphoric language or grounds them in the sensate. In this instance, the faces against the “transparent membrane” echo an image earlier in the poem of “unknown cousins” whose “spirit faces crowded the windows of a '64 Buick.” (Also notable is Michaels' use of the unusual “dilatation”—a dilated version of “dilation.” Her diction tends toward a scientific precision.) ***** Michaels is a metaphorically inventive poet. She uses many constructions to good effect, the prepositional “of” (“the bin of stars,” “the big-top of stars,” “keloids of rain on wood,” “the rear-view mirror of the moon,” “the cold stethoscope of fear,” “the last syrup of light”), the possessive clause (“the sun's copper pressure,” “the sky's pink shell,” “the night's milky grain”) and similes (“sun like paint on the wind-shield,” “stars scattering like pips spat . . .,” “air like wood grain”). She also is given to passages of stunningly beautiful personification:
Because the moon feels loved, she lets our eyes
follow her across the field, stepping
from her clothes, strewn silk
glinting in furrows. Feeling loved, the moon loves
to be looked at . . .
. . .
Her sister, memory, browses the closet
for clothes carrying someone's shape.
She wipes her hands on an apron
stained with childhood.
“Skin Divers”
***** What is interesting and distinctive about Michaels' most ambitious poems is the way, like a disturbed octopus, they announce themselves by first emitting clouds of swirling atmospheric ink. These descriptions, heavily weighted and seductive, create a charged, mysterious mood, but often withhold their occasion. Only once the atmosphere has been established does it clear enough to allow other layers of the poem to reveal themselves: story, characters, context, motive. Because of this, the poems have a circular quality; as a reader, one wants to go back and see how one got where one is, to look more closely at those inky veils, and the pattern of their swirls.
“Miner's Pond” is in three sections, each of which is also divided (by dots). It begins:
A caver under stalactites,
the moon searches the stars.

In the low field, pools turn to stone.
Starlight scratches the pond,
. . .

The crow is darkness's calculations;
all absence in that black moment's ragged span.
Next, the poem turns to a description of geese, “amazed/they've returned from the stars,/hundreds of miles to describe.” The human is introduced, but not dwelt on:
It's not that they're wild, but
their will is the same as desire.
The sky peels back under their blade.

Like a train trestle, something in us rattles.
All November, under their passing.
Finally, in the third part of this first section, the poem begins to integrate the human, expanding the relationship between human and geese, human and landscape:
The last syrup of light boils out from under the lid
of clouds . . .

Even in a place you know intimately,
each night's darkness is different.

They aren't calling down to us.
We're nothing to them . . .

At Miner's Pond we use the past
to pull ourselves forward; rowing.

These descriptions and metaphors, each so freighted with emotional weight, are somewhat cryptic. What is the moon searching for? What is the absence the crow calls forth? How is the darkness different? What is the past that the “we” of the poem is pulling forward from?
***** It's not that I want the poem to provide answers immediately or directly, but that they hang in the air, pulling a reader in, but also keeping her out. The second section (itself in five parts) seems to address these questions, beginning as it does with the past—“It was the tambourine that pushed my father/over the edge in 1962”—and filled as it is with family stories, but by its end one has a portrait of childhood and sibling closeness, but no clue as to the mysteries permeating the poem's opening.
***** The third section opens by reintroducing the geese only to direct us underground, and contrast both with the human condition:
Migrating underground, miles below the path of the geese,
currents and pale gases
stray like ghosts through walls of rock.
Above and below, the way is known;
but here, we're blind.

It also places us squarely in the present, chanting a litany of the ways the past has changed:
Now stones have different names.

Now there's a darkness like the lakes of the moon;

When, finally, opening the second half of this last section, the poem reveals its secret, I didn't feel, as I might have, that Michaels had been coy; rather, that she couldn't bear to utter the horrible—that made all the difference. Now she's ready to say it directly:
My brother's son lived
one fall, one spring.
Going back to nature, describing the line of geese as “a moving scar,” Michaels brings the poem full circle and fulfills the heavy unspoken task the poem took on from its beginning—to give shape and voice to what it feels like to live in a world of senseless loss.
***** That so many of Michaels' poems are addressed to a particular “you” gives them the freedom of personal reminiscence and a sense of authenticity. In a sense, the “you” is a romantic device, a nucleus around which Michaels coalesces her disparate thoughts, like Coleridge in his lime-tree bower prison addressing his epiphanies to Charles Lamb. But with Michaels, the person implied by the “you” and especially the relationship between that person and the poem's speaker are essential: they form the poem's magnetic field. To some extent, readers of lyric poetry always feel like they are eavesdropping; with Michaels' poems, you overhear and feel privy to not just a day's anecdotes, but a complexity of relational associations and obsessions.
***** This is true of both the poems in Michaels own voice and the persona poems. “Words for the Body,” “What the Light Teaches,” and “Fontanelles,” to pick one poem from each book addressing an intimate. In “Words for the Body,” reminiscing to a childhood friend becomes a vehicle for examining the intensity of their youthful artistic apprenticeships and allows Michaels to offer a conciliatory vision to the friend, who stopped playing piano at eighteen (“Fingers have a memory,/to read the familiar braille of another's skin”). “What the Light Teaches” also goes back and forth between childhood and the present. Addressing her sister gives Michaels the latitude to evoke a mutually loved place (“Countless times this river has been bruised by our bodies”); mutually loved artists (“Attentive as your favorite poet,/Tsvetaeva—who listened with the roots of her hair”); their parents (“I looked out at our father in the yard and saw/how she leaned her head on his shoulder—/ . . ./You were reading by the open door.”) and the history of displacement that informs the 20th century and their family in particular (“It was a suicide mission, to smuggle language/from mouths of the dying/and the dead—last words of the murdered mothers—Germany, Poland, Russia”). Throughout each of these layered histories concerns of language and memory are interwoven:
Prayer is the effort of wresting words
not from silence,
but from the noise of other words.
To penetrate heaven, we must reach
what breaks in us.
The image haunts me:
the double swaying
of prayer on the trains.
Like many of Michaels poems, “What the Light Teaches” has an intense but diffuse quality; the address to the sister holds it together.
***** Of these three poems, “Fontanelles” relies least on the direct address, and more on the unifying analogy of geological time and fetal development (“The distance a child travels,/tens of thousands of years,/one cell at a time”) but addressing the father of her child gives the poem a sense of depth. The distances—emotional, intellectual, and physical—the couple has traveled together, which culminates in their child and in the winter landscape of the poem, becomes the journey of the poem:
Together we've looked to limestone and to apoptosis,
to discarded theories and the Abbés Glory and
Breuil, who followed children in the painted caves

. . .
. . .To everything
science breaks open to learn
what's inside. . .
. . . To icebergs
old as stone. To the granite sphinx.
. . .
And to how long
the handprint has marked the cave,
and to the nine months, and the time
twice that, for the fontanelles to close.
***** Of the eleven long persona poems spanning all three books, seven of them are addressed to a particular person: in “January,” Brueghel is back in Brussels writing Giulio Clovio in Rome; in “The Weight of Oranges” Mandelstam is in exile writing to a former lover (“Your husband's a good builder—I burned/every house we had, with a few words to start the flames”); in “Sublimation” Alfred Döblin, on the verge of returning to Germany after World War II, addresses his lover of many years, the photographer Yolla Niclas; in “Pillar of Fire,” Captain Watson, describing Krakatoa, addresses his father, whom he first sailed with; Karen Blixen addresses her lover Denis Fitz-Hatchen in “Blue Vigour”; both Marie Curie in “The Second Search” and Kathleen Scott in “Ice House” address their dead husbands. In two of the four remaining persona poems, the speaker is intensely focused on someone: Kepler, in “A Lesson from theEarth,” on (the dead) Tycho Bracho; Lucia Czechowska, in “Stone,” on (the dead) Modigliani. The painter Modersohn-Becker, in her eponymous poem, reminisces about her years in Paris with Rodin and Rilke, as well as contemplates the husband, Otto Becker, she left to be there (and later returned to, to die in childbirth). Only Renoir seems fixated on nobody in particular. “On the Terrace” is written at the moment he can no longer freely hold a brush and is turning to sculpture, and in it Renoir is fixated only on his health and his art.
***** If the device of direct address is what gives these poems their intimacy and immediacy, making them seem as personal as the rest of Michaels' work, writing in someone else's voice focuses Michaels' gifts and, especially in “A Lesson from the Earth,” sharpens her wit. Michaels is like a certain kind of great actor—a Cary Grant, a Katharine Hepburn— whose best roles illuminate and reveal them even as they convincingly embody their roles (roles perhaps written with them specifically in mind). When Kepler, at the end of “A Lesson from the Earth” says “it's the believer who keeps looking for proof,” or Marie Curie, in “The Second Search,” declares “everything we touch/burns away, whether we give ourselves/or not,” you feel that perfect as these lines are for these characters, they could plausibly be slipped into and happily exist in any number of Michaels' poems. In “Wild Horses,” one of the short love poems in Skin Divers, there is this description of stars:
. . . the first stars' faint static,
the sacred transmissions, the hair's
breadth of the intimate
Ultimately, whether writing in her own voice or another's, it is this ability—to make the infinite intimate and intimate infinite—which makes Michaels such a compelling poet and her work richly rewarding.

***** Carol Moldaw is a Contributing Editor for The Drunken Boat. She is the author of Chalkmarks on Stone (La Alameda Press, 1998). Also in 1998, a bilingual edition of her poems, Pencereden/Through the Window was published in Istanbul. Currently, she is working on a new poetry collection. Her poems that have appeared in Conjunctions, Manoa, Paris Review, Colorado Review, and Denver Quarterly.