To read a selection of Carol Moldaw's poetry
Carol is a Contributing Editor for The Drunken Boat
Poems***** 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.
by Anne Michaels. Alfred A. Knopf 2000. 195 pp. $25.00 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Carol Moldaw
***** 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:
“Miner's Pond” is in three sections, each of which is also divided (by dots). It begins:
***** 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:
***** 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:
***** 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:
***** 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:
********* 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.