Anne Michaels’ latest book of poetry All We Saw is a rhythmic meditation on life and death. It is reminiscent of Railtracks, the poetic collaboration between herself and John Berger, though sadly, All We Saw takes place after Berger’s death, and it is hard not to read many of the poems as both a love letter to her friend and homage to his writerly life.
The similarities between Railtracks and All We Saw are due in most part to the way both texts traverse time and space; there is a constant tension between stillness and movement – the subjects are present across continents and ages, at once intimate and distant.
In Railtracks it was the telephone and the train that were able to close temporal space – in Michaels’ latest collection, memory and dreams are the vehicles for visiting the distant or departed, though the difference between these collections may lie more in Michaels’ desire in All We Saw not to close this space but simply observe it.
In Railtracks we travel, “from Russia and Czechoslovakia and Poland and Buenos Aires … from France and Spain, from Palestine and Greece … sometimes there was piano music, an outflowing of such precise distance … the Polish pianist, the German conductor, the Russian violinist, the Japanese piano, all crossing the Atlantic, [only] to cram themselves into the tiny, scratchy speaker of an answering machine”. The second poem in All We Saw – ‘Somewhere Night Is Falling’ – crosses continents in the same way:
“Somewhere a child stands next to a wall in the desert.
Somewhere thousands stand where once the square was empty.
Somewhere a cave is lit by a torch.
Somewhere between Paris and London, a man peels an orange on the train.
Somewhere a man waits in a city for a woman who waits for him.
Somewhere the dead are leaving a sign.
Somewhere a man remembers a blue shirt left behind forty years before.
Somewhere a man wonders how many thousands of years men have lain with a woman just this way.”
And yet, like the photographs taken from the moving train in Railtracks, these lines are merely snapshots, each one suggesting predictability, synchronicity, the immediacy and distance of the world we live in. The feeling of “always having been”, the notion that any one of us could be present in every time and space, here and here and here, carries itself through the collection, begging the question “will we go to a place where the past is new tell me this winter morning where that past is hiding?”
Vanessa Karas | Literature Editor