Author and artist collaborate beautifully

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April 17, 2014

Correspondences

By Anne Michaels and Bernice Eisenstein

McClelland & Stewart

Unpaginated, $35

Reviewed by Karen Enns

            Correspondences is a deeply layered collaboration between poet and novelist Anne Michaels, and artist and writer Bernice Eisenstein (author of the graphic memoir “I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors”). It is a beauty of a book, seamlessly blending form and content in a unique design that invites the reader into a communal place of remembrance.

The pages open out accordion-style between two hardcover plates. Read one way, Michaels’ long resonant poem unfolds; read the other way, Eisenstein’s portraits of writers, musicians, and artists, whose lives were brutally altered by the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges, peer out at the reader from muted backgrounds. Opened out completely, the gallery of faces spans the length of a large room. Eisenstein’s subjects include Anna Akhmatova, Bruno Schulz, Albert Camus, Charlotte Salomon, Osip Mandelstam, Primo Levi, Charlotte Delbo, and many others. The haiku-like text that accompanies each portrait is often, though not always, a quotation. Opposite the face of Tereska, a young survivor whose photograph was taken in a refugee camp, and about whom little else is known, are the words, “I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you – Nobody – Too?”

The end of one side of the book becomes the beginning of the other, pulling the reader into an endless loop of mourning. “Our eyes register the light of dead stars,” a quotation from the work of André Schwarz-Bart, speaks to the relentlessness of that pull; the haunting gazes in Eisenstein’s portraits are as hard to leave behind as they are to see again.

Michaels’s book-length poem begins in the dark, lyrical tone that carries the entire work: “The wet earth. I did not imagine / your death would reconcile me with / language, did not imagine soil / clinging to the page, black type / like birds on a stone sky.” There is deep grief in this elegy to her father and to the historical figures that shared his century. “A life is inextricable from a time, place, language,” she writes in one of the brief biographical notes that introduce the portraits, “If we seek it, if we are fortunate, our sensibilities and our grief find a true companionship — with certain writers, painters, composers, activists. To remember someone is also to remember this ardour, these allegiances, this necessity.”

The poem is a tribute to this ardour then, and to the ways in which language becomes a necessary part of its articulation, a connective tissue between the past and the present, between the mourned and those who mourn, and between the survivors themselves—the ones who have lived to tell the stories. Language, says Michaels, can either complete or dismantle us, “each word the reverse of a word.” Referring to the correspondence between Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan, who appear as central figures (indeed, their portraits act as bookends on either side of the gallery), she writes, “For both, language was a leap of faith, staggering and minimal . . . .”

But this book is an artistic collaboration. Two art forms in dialogue can do more than one. If language seems inadequate at times, if it can make the leap only minimally, we have the visual to intensify the palette: “not two to make one, / but two to make / the third, / just as a conversation can become / the third side of the page.”

The accordion-style format means the reader has to physically support the book to keep it together. It is this act that adds a final dimension to the experience of Correspondences. The reader must also bear some of the weight.

Karen Enns’s new book of poetry, Ordinary Hours, will be launched in Victoria April 29 at 7:30 p.m. at Open Space as part of a group tour sponsored by her publisher, Brick Books. The three other poets featured include Arleen Pare (Lake of Two Mountains), Jane Munro (Blue Sonoma) and Joanna Lilley (The Fleece Era).

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