Review by Claire Farley
Correspondences, the collaborative work between poet and novelist Anne Michaels and writer and artist Bernice Eisenstein, is a beautifully crafted elegy to Michaels’s father, Isaiah, and an intriguing art object. It is printed “accordion-style” with Michaels’s book-length poem unfolding on one side of the book’s pages as Eisenstein’s stirring portrait sequence of twentieth-century poets, intellectuals, and political activists juxtapose the poem on the other. The book’s covers are at once front and back, the beginning and the end of a cyclical reading, inviting us to read and re-read again.
not two make one
but two make
just as a conversation can become
the third side of the page
Eisenstein’s portraits for Correspondences are of those who inhabited Isaiah Michaels’s inner landscape: Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs, Osip Mandelstam, Albert Einstein and others. These men and women share with Isaiah the memories and experiences of Nazi occupied Europe, “their times and their concerns joined with his own.” Eisenstein evokes the expressionistic quality of memory with fluid, flowing brushstrokes; yet, like a memory, the subjects feel just beyond our reach, neatly beckoning us from their portrait frames. Like Michaels’s poem, they are a dialogue between presence and absence.
The relationship between word and image is “a layered kinship;” an intricate correspondence. The words that accompany each individual’s portrait are often their own, though some also speak on behalf of another, to another. The correspondence, then, is not only between Michaels and Eisenstein. It’s also in the decades of letters between Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs (ending with their deaths, only days apart), in Jean Amery’s profound influence on Primo Levi, in the poems Nadezhda Mandelstam memorized to keep her husband’s work alive after his death; the compassion that we find in the language of those with kindred souls. These words echo Michaels’s poem and are the bits and pieces of lives that we all carry:
not our memory of the dead
but what the dead
Michaels’s work has often been an exploration of memory. In her first novel, Fugitive Pieces, she renders the fragmentary nature of memory in terms of the accumulation of archeological strata, the layers of meaning that all moments carry. In Correspondences, these layers are the dialogues between lives, the conversation that is “the third side of the page.” These lives—Michaels’s own, her father’s and those who share their history—meet in language.
Michaels’s writing has always been moving, even haunting, in part because of the precision of her language; every word is selected deliberately. Her poetic charge has been to trace through language what has always been in our hearts but for which words escape expression. She enters grief and develops a vocabulary of absence. In Correspondences, she explores language in new ways but this is not play or a feat of craftsmanship. She renders in language that slip which alters meaning: between free and occupied Europe, between life and death,
between voie and voix
voice and path,
between converse and its converse
between Ancel and Celan
between Mayer and Amery
between Nemen and Prut
between Prut and the Seine
between sauf and soif,
Correspondences feels like a highly personal book in which Michaels approaches her own life in more direct ways than in her earlier writing. And yet, this book offers the hope that loss is never only our own to carry. The lives lost or displaced by the Second World War overflow with grief and Michaels invites us to hold just a few words each, just enough to carry on the conversation.
Anne Michaels is the author of the internationally best-selling novel Fugitive Pieces, winner of the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Guardian Fiction Award, and the Orange Prize for Fiction, among many other honors. Fugitive Pieces was made into a major motion picture. Her second novel, The Winter Vault, was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Trillium Book Award, and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and a nominee for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She is also the author of three highly acclaimed poetry collections. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages.
Bernice Eisenstein is the author of the critically acclaimed graphic memoir I Was A Child of Holocaust Survivors, which was translated into ten languages, and won the Canadian Jewish Book Award. Eisenstein, whose artwork has appeared in exhibitions in Europe and the United States, lives in Toronto.