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Correspondences by Anne Michaels – review


Written as an elegy for the writer's father, Correspondences is a beautiful object – concertinaed pages of portraits and poetry containing a precise and bittersweet melancholy

There is pleasure to be had in the physical existence of Correspondences. It is heartening that publishers are willing to invest in such a painstaking, unusual, beautiful book. In an age of instant reaction, it demands contemplation. Even more than an ordinary volume of poetry, it asks you to take time. It is a stone-grey hardback – like a tablet or notebook – and can be read in several ways – and two directions. Its pages are pleated like an accordion and its music is as melancholy.

Anne Michaels, poet and novelist (who won the Orange Prize in 1997 for Fugitive Pieces), has written an elegy for her father, Isaiah Michaels (1918-2009). But the book is more than that. It is an ambitious and carefully assembled funeral wreath to extend mourning into what she calls "layered kinship, a touch across the page". The book has the silent companionship you sometimes feel in a library. It is a gathering of her father's kindred spirits: poets, writers, intellectuals, political activists, musicians, holocaust survivors  – people who influenced, moved and defined him: "The men and women gathered here inhabited an historical landscape Isaiah Michaels knew intimately: their times and concerns joined his own."

If you move through the book in one direction, you see a gallery of faces. The artist Bernice Eisenstein, herself the child of holocaust survivors, contributes portraits of Osip Mandelstam, Helen Keller, Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs, SY Agnon, Albert Einstein, Bruno Schulz, Fernando Pessoa… and more. These portraits subscribe to the idea of correspondence themselves, have a family likeness with their almond-eyed gravity and jade, grey and turquoise palette.

Michaels is fascinated by the connections between these figures – many Jewish but not all – and the best way into the book is through the biographical notes, which begin the process of plaiting lives together. The holocaust overshadows many of the lives. Selected quotations also give pause for thought such as Einstein's observation that "calm" is the "greatest challenge for the sailor".

Michaels's long poem is calm and challenging. She writes with an intensity that takes time to adjust to – she has always been an acquired taste. This is partly because her writing is unleavened by wit. And there are moments here where she teeters on the brink of pseudery such as the line in which she writes about "all invisible freedoms/contained in a pair of socks". She is not afraid of getting a laugh for the wrong reasons.

And yet – she keeps her nerve and the more you read, the more the emotion of the poem steals up on you. There is a particularly successful and harrowing section in which she allows numbers to speak louder than words. She records the address of Paul Celan's last flat – 6 avenue Emile Zola, the number of Charlotte Salomon's paintings (769) before she was deported and ends: "Even the unborn have a number, the same number/not given to the mother and all those/not worth counting."

And there's a sympathetic quality to the poem about setting the table in which she describes a miscellany of broken chairs – even coming close to humour with "never enough chairs". The voice is hospitable and assured. I could have done without the "parsing" of vegetables (I'd have allowed them simply to be chopped) and would have kept the "symphony" on hold. But by the end one has drawn a chair up to Anne Michaels's table, especially as her moving final poem reaches out a hand to the first and shows us that grief is, like this book, an unbroken circle.

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