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Books

book review

‘Correspondences’ by Anne Michaels, Bernice Eisenstein

Paul Celan.

Bernice Eisenstein

Paul Celan.

It’s easy to understand why poetry and visual art have such an on-again/off-again thing. One gets read and longs for the immediacy of the seen; the other gets seen and longs for the engagement of words. Each shines where the other pales, and thus, there’s an attraction and repulsion between them — something hovering between envy and pity. Good times.

Some artists have divined ways to overlap and render the two indistinguishable from each other (conceptual artists Jenny Holzer and Lawrence Weiner come to mind), and it’s a union that can be sublime. But often, when poetry and art are seated at the same table, expected to converse, the silence can be lurid. Through a stunningly unique book-length collaboration, poet/novelist Anne Michaels and artist/writer Bernice Eisenstein have found a way to let the words of the former and the images of the latter co-exist without canceling, confusing, or compromising each other: by suspending them in the dream state of a book that virtually never ends.

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“Correspondences” is constructed as an accordion of continuous pages, its two covers hugged together by slim ribbons, each volunteering to be the front. On one side, Michaels’s book-length poem stretches sparsely down the pages’ (or is it page’s?) long white path; on the reverse, Eisenstein’s sequence of 26 portraits — mostly of literary luminaries lost to or displaced by World War II — leads you back to the ostensible boundary of the endpaper.

CORRESPONDENCES

Author:
Anne Michaels, illustrated by Bernice Eisenstein
Publisher:
Knopf
Number of pages:
128 pp.
Book price:
$35

It’s a structure both circular and free, with echoes and reflections that reward prolonged wanders. At times, the experience conjures the white halls and wall texts of a gallery; other times, the quiet, informative rows of a cemetery, where the notions of a start and a finish feel both profound and naïve. But throughout, whether through the airy passing strands of Michaels’s lines, or the plummeting depth of the eyes in Eisenstein’s faces, the cycling dynamics that animate “Correspondences” — of past and present, loss and replenishment, despair and hope — enact the book’s central fascination: memory.

“Forgive me, for beginning/at the end” writes Michaels toward the middle of her poem. She demonstrates an easy freedom with white space unusual for a novelist (“You spend your time when you’re writing erasing yourself,” she told the Guardian in 2009). But her words never seem adrift; rather, each mark on the page is deliberate, as if each word were there only because it was scratched too deep to disappear. She moves in and out of the pull between poets Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs (whose longing correspondences stretched over two decades and yielded just two encounters), and the devotion that bound Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam (who, much like Anna Akhmatova, relied on memory to preserve and protect poems too dangerous for pages).

Michaels’s lines are rich with the closeness of loss, and an ever-renewing acceptance of it: “your warm hand and — both in mine —/ your soul’s hand above the hospital bed.” Michaels has explored the fragmentation of memory before (in novels like “Fugitive Pieces”) but here the exploration seems more in service of exposing its two-ness — the cruel and clever way memory has of splitting the difference between absence and presence. Eisenstein’s portraits, each accompanied by stray lines from their subjects, are shadows of the poem: Celan’s still and searching eyes, the tension in Nadezhda’s cheek (“Hope/ Abandoned/ Hope” inscribed to the left), Akhmatova’s pale shoulder. Are these details the souvenirs or the enhancements of loss?

After a few cycles through “Correspondences,” it becomes an investigation of reading itself — as expressed and pressed into the cover: “not two to make one,/ but two to make/ the third,/ just as a conversation can become/the third side of the page.” Michaels and Eisenstein’s correspondence is one between memory and experience, between loss and hope (a word at one with Nadezdha’s name), between (as Eisenstein notes) unfolding and enfolding — and the book itself, its never-ending story, offers reassurance that what’s lost returns in some form or another. At one point, Michaels writes that it’s “impossible to understand an object/ without its story” — but clearly, it goes both ways.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at michael.brodeur @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.

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