Skin Divers

by Anne Michaels,
ISBN: 0771058799

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Diving Deeper into Mystery
by Eva Tihanyi

The mind can't resist synthesis. As I read Anne Michaels' third poetry collection, Skin Divers, I am constantly reminded of the book I'm reading alongside it, Deep Play. Deep Play is the latest offering by American poet, essayist, and naturalist Diane Ackerman. In it, she writes: "We ask the poet to shepherd us telescopically and microscopically through many perspectives, to lead us...through the hidden multidimensionality of almost everything." Michaels, I think as I ponder these words, does exactly this, and does it so smoothly, so eloquently, that it seems deceptively easy.

"As many have pointed out," Ackerman continues, "poetry is a kind of knowing, a way of looking at the ordinary until it becomes special and the exceptional until it becomes commonplace. It both amplifies and reduces experience, paradoxical though that may sound. It can shrink an event teeming with disorder to the rigorous pungency of an epigram." Again, Michaels comes to mind, for an important aspect of her poetry is the way in which she presents, what Ackerman calls, "a fluency of particulars": a movement of specific images that build into truths much larger than themselves.

Those who have admired Michaels' previous work-The Weight of Oranges (1986), Miner's Pond (1991), and her award-winning first novel, Fugitive Pieces (1996)-will also admire Skin Divers, and for many of the same reasons. There is no mistaking the voice (quiet, meditative, calmly intense), the concerns (the body as a living archive, "a memory palace") or the approach. No matter how private the impetus for a poem might be, Michaels continually aims to reach beyond her own subjectivity, to project it onto the screen of history, of humanity as a whole. In her work, the personal is scrupulously contextual.

Skin Divers is divided into three sections, the first of which is, at least on the surface, the most personal: experience deeply felt and lyrically expressed. In the first stanza of the beautiful title poem, the lines whisper rather than bellow:

Under the big-top

of stars, cows drift

from enclosures, bellies brushing

the high grass, ready for their heavy

festivities. Lowland gleams like mica

in the rain. Starlight

soaks our shoes.

The seaweed field begs, the same

burlap field that in winter cracks with frost,

is splashed by the black brush

of crows. Frozen sparklers of Queen Anne's lace.

Section II has a more "objective" tone; the poet dives into the skin of others-a technique Michaels has used a number of times before, most notably in Miner's Pond. It comprises three poems, each addressed to a different deceased figure: physicist Marie Curie remembers her spouse and collaborator, Pierre; Kathleen Scott addresses her Antarctic explorer husband, Robert; and a speaker (presumably the poet herself) elegizes Canadian writer Adele Wiseman, to whom the poem is dedicated.

Section III, the most ambitious in the book, is one long poem, "Fontanelles", about "[the] distance a child travels,/tens of thousands of years,/one cell at a time" to become, first, a foetus and, then, a corporeal entity with a soul. Michaels juxtaposes the conception and birth of this single child with the evolution of humanity itself. Once again the personal event (the birth of a daughter) is considered against the backdrop of geological and anthropological time. The birth of a child, be it today or five thousand years ago, becomes a manifestation of the same miracle: the continuation of life. With this miracle comes a profound vulnerability:

Chalk and beeches. The winter sea

looks for itself in the new dark,

turning the smallest colour.

We brought our daughter here

before she was mortal. Before I knew

a person can be a prayer. Before

I had ever bathed a child, before

I felt another's death

could be my own.

We've gone on, each year

a little deeper, to the place

where land is geology, where objects

are defined

by the space in them.

Where proteins assemble themselves

into souls.

There is, as one has come to expect in a Michaels book, arresting imagery throughout Skin Divers. The evocations of landscape are especially haunting. Michaels is a master of "[t]he chemistry of looking", and her images are often not only startling, but uncannily appropriate. She writes in "Skin Divers": "Like the moon, I want to touch places/just by looking." And she does. She notices, and draws us into her noticing. Her gaze is slow and thoughtful, her attention to detail enviable. She sees "[t]he branch that's released when the bird lifts/or lands" and the "[r]ain dripping from the awning of stars". She observes how "[u]nder the pulling moon, the strap of river/digs into the flesh of field."

One of the most interesting elements of Michaels' work is her combination of contemporary science with the visceral and the sensory organs, which, largely unaltered generation after generation, connect us to the human continuum. Interspered among Michaels' beloved light and water imagery (stars, moon, rivers, lakes, rain, and oceans abound) are terms such as corpus luteum, iron-oxide, cilia, photons, lamella, and gneiss-the language of science flowering in a field of accessible, sensuous lyricism. The fact that she can make this unlikely garden grow is testament to her notable talent.

My only quibble is with Michaels' occasional lapse into flat pronouncements: "History is the love that enters us/through death; its discipline/is grief" or "The past/is not our own." There is also the odd awkward slip: "glimpses of voices/pressed the air." But these are minor flaws in a book that, overall, dives unnervingly under the skin-and stays there. 

Eva Tihanyi's fourth poetry collection, Restoring the Wickedness, will be published by Thistledown Press in 2000.


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