A Companionship of Lines:
Take two on poetry as a collaborative art...
How do you stay in touch with poetry when you’ve had such enormous success as a novelist that all the winds in your life blow you toward the sentence and not the line? Poet and novelist Anne Michaels, the author of Fugitive Pieces and The Winter Vault, has found an answer in a fascinating collaboration with visual artist Bernice Eisenstein, herself the author of a graphic memoir I recommend to all: I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors. The line is literally the source of their enterprise together.
Michaels and Eisenstein knew the form “right from the beginning,” Anne said to me in a telephone interview yesterday. The two, who always wanted to work together, came up with an accordion-style format and even went so far as to make a mockup of the book near the start of their collaboration. The form they devised determined that Michael’s poem would unfold from one side, and that Eistenstein’s portraits of 20th-century writers and thinkers (along with minimal quotations from their works) would unfold from the other. The drawn line, prominent in Eisenstein’s portraits of figures like Fernando Pessoa and Charlotte Salomon, works in conversation with the variable lines in Michaels’ poetry.
“Bernice always wanted to create something with me, and I wanted to work with her, too,” Anne said. (Both women live in Toronto.) “After my father died, I knew I wanted to write some kind of elegy,” but not a traditional one, certainly not a story. Instead, she was interested in her father’s “invisible life, the inner conversation he had with the ideas of writers and artists” he admired, and who were so much a part of the wrenching times he lived in. (Isaiah Michaels fled Poland and eventually settled in Canada.)
Once Bernice and Anne determined the format, “all the ways of interaction were there from the start.” The limitations of the object determined the length of individual sections. “I knew each page had to be a certain size.” Anne continued. Dimensions both created and became lines. “Physically, we wanted the book to contain the inexpressible.”
The attempt to find words for the ineffable—that’s a definition of the impulse to poetry.
“I had a long-standing conversation with myself about language and poetry,” Anne murmured. “I wanted to bring the language down to a rudimentary place. We have biological rhetoric and eulogizing language, but not the language for death.” As the poet searched for this language, her friend Bernice’s visual instincts offered another expressive alternative.
Inside the Old French root converser is the idea of “verser,” to occupy oneself. But in converser, two occupy themselves together. Verser also, of course, refers to the turning lines of verse. As the poem summons up conversations in the past (my favorite being the first meeting of Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs), the drawings limn the circumstances. Because North American publishers McClelland and Stewart/Random House Canada and Knopf USA have followed Michaels’ and Eisenstein’s initial mockup (helped by the deft hand of designer C.S.Richardson), the visual art attains an almost psychic sync with the poetry, and vice versa.
The end result is a majestic solemnity achieved by fluid interplay. Yet there also lingers a simple sense of two artists at play. Michaels’ lines range from two words to the long stretch across the page. Eisenstein’s lines define the angles of gazes in the multitude of portraits from Kafka to Akhmatova. As a material entity, I’d call it a 21st-century book, one in a new stream of cherished built-book-objects (think Anne Carson), branching off the river of books that soon will simply be e-. Poetry, with its limited but shining audience, as well as this audience’s insistence on a tactile, indeed, a kinesthetic reality, strikes me as the place where such 21st-century book innovations will flourish.
Correspondences is covered in a sleeve of a somber but velvety charcoal color that reflects the rich sobriety of the poem and portraits. One cover contains Eisenstein’s portrait of “Tereska” a refugee child photographed by Chim. The other is embossed with these thematic lines from Michaels’ stately elegy:not two to make one,
but two to make
just as a conversation can become
the third side of the page
“I think what this particular collaboration did,” Anne mused, “was to allow a conversation. It was company. Companionship.”