I’m often drawn to writing that acknowledges the awe one feels as an individual gazing at the universe but from an entirely secular perspective. The world and the fact of existence seems spectacular enough without attributing it to any grand design. (Nevertheless, I fully respect people who draw wisdom, comfort and community from different kinds of faith.) In her latest collection of poetry “All We Saw” it feels like Anne Michaels is beckoning the reader to join her on a spiritual journey that is entirely unconnected with religion. Her pared down poems describe the path of life as if travelling in a boat. She frequently makes pithy observations about the difficult process of cherishing our experiences without being too attached to them, especially with how this is done in writing and visual art. Her poems shift back and forth from the personal to the broadly objective to explore the tension of savouring what we love, but also learning to let it go.
The book begins and ends with longer poems, but smaller ones are sandwiched in between. The final poem in the fifth section ‘Ask Aloud’ struck me most as simulating something like a prayer. In the bold statement “To love another more than oneself. To know this is to know everything” Michaels seems to be forming a mantra through which to live. She asks a series of questions and rather than assuming there are answers she declares “Not surmise. Sunrise” as if certain kinds of truth can only be understood fully by looking at nature. Imagery of the natural world repeats and crops up in various poems where knowledge can be better gleaned from the physical world rather than through a process of deduction or received wisdom. The poem ‘You Meet the Gaze of a Flower’ also acts as a kind of entreaty or prayer about confronting life head on. Nature can also encompass a sense of emotion which can’t be expressed in words: “how much that hope hurt and yet purple dusk, yellow winter sky”. I love the way in which you’re suddenly thrust from a place of deep personal feeling into the expanse of a colourful skyline.
Point of view can shift in fascinating and moving ways throughout a single poem in Michaels’ writing. This probably occurs most dramatically in the poem ‘Bison’ where the description moves from the creation of a picture to inhabiting that picture to the dying artist who created the picture. The focus switches so fluidly it’s breathtaking to be drawn through it and creates a thoroughly unique resonance. This is very different from the blunt emotion to be found in ‘I Dreamed Again’ which describes how we can get lost in dream states where loved ones who are now deceased can physically exist in our lives again – something like what Joan Didion describes in her memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Such longing for a connection with another is consistent with the existential panic that can result from absolute solitude. In her poem ‘Not’ she seems to assert that we possess innumerable uncertainties in life but we can be certain we are not alone when another person is with us. I also like speculating whether this poem is a play off from Samuel Beckett’s famous piece for the theatre ‘Not I’ and offers a different kind of answer from the loveless life of the narrator in that dramatic monologue.
The title poem which concludes the book touches back on water imagery found in the beginning. It also harkens back to a kind of communal spiritual practice where she states “we had only to bend our heads as if reading the same book open between us”. To surmise that the same truth about all the manifold experiences and emotions of life can be understood by looking at the natural world is a beautifully optimistic one. Yet, I also like how she seems to intimate that horizons can create a false belief. A skyline gives the illusion that there is an endpoint when in actuality it will continue on no matter how much you run towards it – just like our images of future happiness will inevitably dissolve because we will always desire more. The book “All We Saw” is a beautifully spare and artful creation.