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Frozen Acrobatics of Memory - Branko Gorjup speaks with Anne Michaels
by Branko Gorjup

Anne Michaels is best-known to Canadians for her extraordinary first novel, Fugitive Pieces, which has inhabited more than twenty languages and established her internationally as one of Canada's most famous literary personalities. It won the Chapters/Books in Canada First Nov el Award in 1997. But Anne Michaels is also a fine and critically acclaimed poet, admired by poetry lovers everywhere. She has two collections, The Weight of Oranges (1985) and Miner's Pond (1994), and McClelland & Stewart has just published her new, eagerly awaited volume, Skin Divers.

The interview was held in June at the Italian Cultural Institute on Huron Street in Toronto. As a prelude to our conversation, which unintentionally centred on time and its passing, we saw an exquisite show of photographs by Mary Pocock and Marcus Shubert, which, with its sumptuous images of archaeological memory, set the mood for our encounter.

BG: I would like to begin by quoting a line from "Words for the Body", which is the last poem in your first collection, The Weight of Oranges: "To praise memory is to praise the body." This statement seems to me to be a kind of DNA that informs all of your work. Can you tell us why the body-and I gather that the body here stands for any natural site-is so important to remembering?

AM: The physical world-the body and, yes, "any natural site"-is of great importance to me because the abstraction can only be reached by way of physicality, by way of concrete reality. For me, the notion of any kind of spirituality, mysticism or awe must be grounded in the material world.

In Fugitive Pieces, I explore this idea in relation to a law that was passed in Germany during the Third Reich declaring it illegal to refer to a Jew as a human. A Jew was, instead, an object, a Stücke, lumpen matter. The laws of the Third Reich pertaining to Jews were, therefore, anti-matter. So-the main character in the novel reasons-if a human being is reduced to an object, to a mere Stücke, to matter, how, then, might he be resurrected? From what? From matter. In Fugitive Pieces, there is a very strong sense of the physical world as a potential source of restoration of the human spirit. And Jacob's sense of faith is very much connected to a kind of redemption and a kind of memory that the physical world contains. Thus, the importance in that book of geology, geography, paleobotany.

There is also, in the book, a strong sense of the physical world possessing memory. Whether on the level of molecules or atoms, physical matter remembers. And the so-called spirit becomes entangled, enmeshed with the chemical constituencies of the body. This is not reductive; on the contrary, mystery or soul is not at all reduced on the chemical level, on the level of enzymes. Somehow, on a quantum level, experience is captured, whether in DNA, in rock strata or in human memory. The body is a memory site. Of course, the body is the focus of spiritual experience, one way or another. And just as one might wish to know everything about one we love, deeply and in every detail-the experiences that shaped them, their childhood stories-so one might want to learn about a place, a landscape, the physical world.

BG: Because memory for you is inseparable from the phenomenal world, the landscape in your writing assumes a fundamental role. Its shape-shifting, geological character-"the frozen acrobatics of folding and faults"-is not only a metaphor for memory, but is memory itself. Can you elaborate?

AM: The poem is a cross-section of time and space. Digging down into the past from a present moment is also a way of entering the future. The relationship with the landscape as a narrative has long intrigued me, both literally and metaphorically. Simply, in the present moment, a mountain seems permanent, static, but is, in fact, part of a geological narrative, even though the process is infinitesimally slow. It is that kind of engagement that interests me: at what level is transformation taking place? What is the nature of that transformation?

In terms of history, I've written about this as "the gradual instant". Connected with this is a kind of consolation, or at least, a kind of consolation is possible. Recent research in cellular biology shows that an infant, through eye contact with the parent, is physically building cellular material, synapses. Here is a lovely example of the functionality of mystery! Our gaze of love upon the child is actually a most pragmatic love. It is a kind of biological imperative.

The abstract from the concrete, and the concrete from the abstract-I enjoy the meshing of those two realms. The realm of the spirit, of emotion, of awe, is also a pragmatic realm. The notion of being literally formed by love-as one might hope all children are-the notion of how we are changed and how we change others, is very pragmatic. Similarly, landscape is often used in my work to open up a certain relationship.

BG: Speaking of memory, we can't avoid the question of time-time that separates us from our past experiences and from those of others. Is one of the poet's responsibilities to restore to us that lost sense of the past? How do you represent time?

AM: One of the great pleasures in writing poetry is that one can use this cross-section to great advantage; hopefully, if you press certain points, they will open up into something larger. There is a great freedom in the poem because we can treat time very intensely. The chronological narrative has a particular effect on reading, on how the writer instructs the reader to enter into the work. It is, necessarily, very different from time in a poem. In fiction, the chronological narrative needs many pages just as we need many days or perhaps years to digest an experience, to reach some understanding of the meaning of an experience.

A poem is like putting a needle through material and looking at a pleat, where the fabric is joined together with a single piercing. What you have is a gathering together of a cluster of pleated gestures. In some ways, this ability of a poem to pleat time is closer to our actual experience of memory, of the passage of time. We notice time most when one event suddenly collides with another, providing us with a perspective. As Einstein might say, as far as time is concerned, a moment must be witnessed: "all our judgments in which time plays a part are always judgments of simultaneous events." The time of the train's arrival is relative to the person on the platform, the coordination of time and place.

You've asked whether the writer's responsibility is to "restore" lost time. All writing is about time that is lost, a desire to retrieve experience, whether biographical or fictional. We are, at the very least, retrieving experience from silence. But if writing retrieves the past, it can also be a way to retrieve the future. The best writing, in some way, changes us.

BG: Obviously, most of us would agree that there are things worth remembering, but also those things that we should let go. How do you select from memory what to perpetuate in your consciousness, and what to make available to the larger world? Is remembering essentially a moral question?

AM: In Fugitive Pieces, one character remarks that what we consciously remember is what the conscience remembers, and he makes a distinction between the amorality of history and the morality of memory. Morality is a discipline. One must practise it. It is not something that appears out of nowhere at a necessary moment. We have to practise it as a discipline, and memory, in a way, allows us to do that. We can restore, in our imagination, regrets, remorse, moments that are lost to us forever. It is a way of practising so that, in the future, that particular moral muscle will be in shape. The novel also talks about the notion of forgiveness being impossible on behalf of someone else, on behalf of the dead. But perhaps, in terms of one's own, direct experience, memory can allow us to engage in a ceremony of forgiveness-whether we are forgiving ourselves or someone else or random events. For a poem in Skin Divers, I chose two beautiful lines by Auden as an epigraph: "So much must be forgiven, out of love./ So much must be forgiven, even love."

BG: In The Encyclopaedia of the Dead, Danilo Kis insists on something he calls the "dignity of the document", by which all the voiceless, the anonymous, and the "unrecorded" citizens of the world are painstakingly entered into an endless, universal encyclopaedia. In your poetry, you, too, frequently work around the silences of others, especially those who were not given a chance to "earn their deaths", such as the victims of the Holocaust and other pogroms. Does this impulse have anything to do with redemption or forgiving? Can the present redeem or forgive the past?

A.M: One would like to believe that the "folding and the faulting", the pleating of time, allows some redemption of the past; but, in fact, the historical past can't be forgiven. As I've said before, no one can forgive on behalf of the dead. And because the dead can't speak, there is only silence. But redemption of the future is possible. What a poem can offer is a way of becoming; a poem, language itself, can be a kind of prayer.

There is a parable in the novel about a man on a train who was dressed in shabby clothes. The other passengers take him for a peasant and treat him disrespectfully. When they arrive at the station, they realize that the old man is not a peasant but, in fact, quite an esteemed member of society. When they ask his forgiveness, eventually he answers that they are asking the wrong man: they must ask the man on the train to forgive them. That is, it is not the forgiveness of the man of stature they should be seeking, but the forgiveness of the peasant they thought he was.

It is the same in terms of the past; that kind of redemption is not possible. We can't redeem an event, but we can redeem lost chances, in the sense of learning from past events, allowing them to influence our future choices.

BG: In your first two collections-and I noticed the same trend continuing in your latest book of poems, Skin Divers-you often engage historical personages as your subjects. They are mostly artists and scientists. They are also individuals who had suffered privately or publicly, or both, because they went beyond ordinary human passions. What exactly is the attraction? Is it their vision, their unique encounter with destiny, that draws you to their lives?

AM: We all reach points of personal contradiction in our lives, crises when we must somehow embrace the contradiction and choose how to live. In the case of most of the subjects of these poems-figures like Osip Mandelstam, Johannes Kepler, Alfred Doëblin or Paula Modersohn-Becker-their ideas, their philosophies, become unsustainable in their lives; inner and outer realities are, for whatever reasons, no longer able to coexist comfortably, whether because of an emotional imperative or a social imperative or even a mathematical imperative! How does one choose to live when there is this conflict, this discord? Does one choose philosophy over fact, philosophy over happiness, or vice versa? Of course, there is no deep happiness without a concordance with one's beliefs, so a way must be found-by choice or by default, which is also a choice. The figures in the poems are facing such moments of "cognitive dissonance", and I try to understand, from the inside out, the outside in, how they dealt with those moments of choice.

Of course, I am interested in their relationships with their times. I wait a long time between the research and the writing to allow myself to absorb the research as fully as I can. In the case of real figures, one must be as respectful as possible, and I am asking their experience to uncover mine, not the other way around. This is one way of being respectful. I'm drawn to certain figures because they help me dig more deeply into certain questions. In fiction, sometimes a character can be a guide, giving the writer courage to enter difficult territory. Among other things, one is reminded again and again that human frailty can also be a strength.

BG: One of the most striking aspects of your poetic writing is the way you handle the language. You don't shy away from an extended use of metaphor, symbol, simile, and so on. You are a master builder of elaborate conceits, which often remind me of the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets. Like the metaphysicals, you bring the mind and the body into a relationship and the result is sensuality. Would you expand on this observation?

AM: Metaphor is essential to me. It allows one to dig deeper and bring together disparate qualities; it is like rubbing the magic lamp. That friction, hopefully, is going to produce some magic. That being said, the metaphor for me must be grounded in the physical realm, in the absolute physicality from which abstraction can emerge, like the genie out of the lamp. It is only by that friction that the magic will emerge. The metaphor not only allows you to penetrate something at very odd angles, but also to turn it completely around. It is a way of piercing through to the other side. It also serves to give body to an idea or an emotion. It is a useful way to make abstractions visible. As the saying goes, "I'll believe it when I see it!" Metaphors must be organic, and often one has to dig deep to find the subterranean tributaries, the hidden paths that form connections.

BG: You said: "The sensual mirage is the heart of the poem." This is when "we take the poet's experience as our own." According to your statement, the bond between the poet and the reader is established through sensory and sensual identifications-in a sort of body-to-body relationship?

AM: If a poem works, then this happens. Even if a poem isn't aiming directly at a sensual experience, the language itself-its musicality, its underlying rhythms-affects us, even if we're not conscious of it. There is a way in which the best poems get under our skin. There are lines that we love but perhaps don't quite understand. There are lines that we remember without quite knowing why. This is one way that we carry a poem with us. And, of course, certain images, metaphors that succeed in uniting emotions and ideas, also inhabit us, work their way into us.

BG: In Skin Divers, you continue with the theme of memory, but the whole process of remembering is, to me, somehow more poignantly intimate than it was in your previous two collections. Do I detect a shift in tone? Some of the poems are deeply private, dealing with love, procreation, and the future, aren't they?

AM: This book is, in a sense, the last in a trilogy, a companion to The Weight of Oranges and Miner's Pond. Together, the three books are reminiscent of a large musical composition in which vocabulary and themes recur, and are examined from different angles. For me, this book signifies a turning, the closing of one door and the opening of another; one might say, on a superficial level, it represents a movement from geology to biology. But since those two sciences are inextricably linked-as all the sciences are-perhaps that isn't a very useful description! Perhaps it's more accurate to say that those three books have led me to a new place, one that I'm exploring at the moment in fiction. Skin Divers has been intentionally constructed in terms of the way language works and the way certain themes and locales are revisited.

BG: "Time is alembic/that turns what we know/into mystery." In Skin Divers, I also get a strong sense of the various speakers' ultimate recognition of the sanctity of all life, from Iréne Curie, who looks for "truth in a block of paraffin", to the formation of a human embryo-"the distance a child travels,/tens of thousands of years,/one cell at a time." Where does the recognition of this mystery come from? Has it got something to do with one's process of maturing? Or with diving deeper? Or with both?

AM: Awe does not necessarily lessen with familiarity. In fact, the opposite is true, if one has the energy or commitment or the mercy to continue "past the last outpost", beyond where the road ends. Usually we dive to a certain level and stay there in our relationships with other human beings, or with a place or a society or an idea. But if we continue to dive from that place, mystery also continues.

BG: It also works the other way around: the more familiar we become with the person, the more we think, or assume, we know that person. People tire of one another. People tire of places.

AM: Absolutely. That is our right, our choice. Thank goodness we have it. But we can also choose when not to do this, and perhaps that is the more interesting choice; it is certainly always a risk. Certain kinds of writing-and reading-allow us to proceed into places that terrify us. The doors into ourselves open in surprising, unpremeditated ways. Mystery is tied to humility. Humility is essential.

BG: This leads me to ask you: Is mystery "ordinary" in the sense that it is everywhere? Is the world holy? Is each one of us the holy other? In your poems, life is numinous: it glows from the inside out like the imaginary house in "What the Light Teaches".

AM: I'm interested in what love makes us capable of, and incapable of. Love's power is both practical and mysterious, whether we're talking about how it can wire the synapses in an infant's brain or give us courage to take moral action. It's a cliché, but the world-inside and outside our bodies-is staggeringly complex. Sometimes a gesture is materially miniscule but represents a journey of extraordinary courage or complexity.

BG: I have always been intrigued by your frequent use of the scientific idiom. I have also been impressed with the ease with which you integrate Latinized vocabulary associated with taxonomy into your highly metaphorical speech that resists explanation. Where does your interest in science come from and how does it enter your poetry?

AM: Science is one way of entering the invisibility of the physical world. The language of science appeals to me because it is accurate in ways other vocabulary isn't, and because it is another vocabulary for awe. I don't think there is any need to ghettoize language. I hope that the scientific terminology is embraced by the rest of the vocabulary in the poems. If a more familiar word can be found to describe the process, I will always use it, but for the most part, scientific language is not easily replaceable; it is deliciously specific.

For example, in "Fontanelles", the last section of Skin Divers, there is a word, apopstosis, which refers to programmed, time-released cell death: certain cells are designed to destroy themselves at intricately specified times, in order to allow other processes to occur. This is a necessary and beneficial function. Apopstosis refers to a specific process; if one does not use that term but, instead, attempts descriptive phrases about cell death, the language begins to take on different overtones, undertones, suggestions, which imply something to us that the technical term itself doesn't. The technical term doesn't pass judgment on what the cell is doing. Once one starts speaking about death, for example, a whole series of associations opens up. It's much more effective, I think, to let the metaphor open up in its own time, in its own way, which the scientific term allows to happen.

I think very carefully when I use that language. I have no desire to irritate or to distract the reader from what the poem is saying; I'm trying to be precise in terms of how the metaphor works in the language. And sometimes choosing a technical term is the most appropriate way. My intention is to move the reader closer to the poem. It's always worthwhile for me, as I said earlier, to begin in the factual and move to the more abstract. My interest in history operates the same way. I try to begin with verifiable facts and then pursue that path as far as I can in order to get as close as possible to a larger meaning, or to find the connection of meaning between disparate facts.

Science is one way into the world, as biology is one way into the body; but any path, followed far enough, and with enough specificity, leads to something beyond itself-beyond the body, so to speak. One avoids moving from an agenda to the fact, using those facts only to corroborate that agenda. Instead, one explores the facts to see where they might lead. I like the earnestness, the discipline, and the humility of this. But once you engage that kind of investigation, the writing of it is entirely about shaping, persuading, cajoling, revising, creating a form that is most effective for expressing the content in all its intricacies, at all its levels. It is a process of two seeming opposites: surrender and discipline.

BG: All interviewers eventually come to the question of influences. Who are the writers who are closest to your sensibility, who have made the greatest difference in your way of seeing life?

AM: Since I'm usually engaged in research, much of my reading is related to whatever I'm working on at the time. I'm a great devourer of non-fiction and can be deeply moved by a single fact. If we are fortunate, we find the writers who give us courage when we need it most. Some give courage in terms of form, some in terms of content. One writer whom I greatly respect in both categories is John Berger; he's a courageous writer and I am always moved by the generosity of his work, by his humanism.

BG: Is there a Canadian literary tradition that you feel particularly close to?

AM: I'm not sure the writers I respect could be classified as a group or a "literary tradition". And of my contemporaries, it's simply too early to make such a classification.

BG: Until this point, I avoided asking you one simple but important question which has always interested me: why have you been so much obsessed with history? Is this a question of our particular time-the bizzare nature of instantaneous transformation, the world becoming elegiac-or something deeper, something more personal, like mortality?

AM: We each enter history through our particular mineshaft. I am interested in the collision of history and biography: how we are shaped by our times; how events shape us personally, even events we've not experienced first-hand. I'm exploring philosophical issues that haunt specific narrators or characters, although such issues aren't investigated in isolation: how does our consciousness accommodate change? But that's just a superficial gloss.

The deeper questions about our relationship with historical events are complicated; questions of responsibility are always the implicit challenge. In a work of fiction or a poem, we are given a chance to imagine a moment when time is arrested, the penultimate moment just before the glass falls off the table and shatters. We have a chance to contemplate fully both that moment before an action becomes irrevocable, and an alternative outcome. This leads us further and further into the past, which is an investigation of "the gradual instant". I think it must be a great temptation for writers to mend their own grief in this way-but that is not my way. The fact is, to continue the metaphor, the glass has shattered. In a real sense, grief cannot be mended, just as past events cannot be altered. But, nevertheless, the writer can be a witness. In the best writing, such witnessing in the imagination can contribute to mending the future; in the end, however, I think the most a writer can hope for is a little more clarity personally, a way of carrying one's own questions.

We've come full circle in our conversation... Part of my interest in history is an interest in transformation-in its devastation and its potential consolation. Each lifetime inhabits and contains such phenomenal change. What is our relationship to this? There are many choices. Where one might choose elegy, another might choose prayer. 

Branko Gorjup is a literary critic, translator, and editor who has recently returned to Rome.


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