Halfway through Anne Michael’s short, beautiful book, Infinite Gradation, we finally come across the two words that form the book’s title.
You said you wanted to keep your eyes open at the end; to miss nothing.
Four months before you died, during your last summer, you looked at the sea. For weeks, the most conscious act of looking. If you could take in that unending movement, that light, the moment water is displaced by water. You knew there was an answer there. In that infinite gradation.
Michael’s book about writing, art, memory, love, and loss is infused with death and grief on nearly every page. And yet, Infinite Gradation is a surprisingly celebratory and compassionate book. Death motivates Michaels to try to spin a fragile web of words that might help her (and us) understand the relationship between art and death. And the answer lies – as always – hidden, unspeakable, unseeable, but somehow known or felt in that “infinite gradation.” The art that Michaels writes about is not so much a product but a state of being, a way of “belonging,” an ability to participate in life using “the most conscious act of looking.”
(It is perhaps worth noting that Michaels’s recent book of poetry, All We Saw, acknowledges the death of six close friends and relatives in the past four years, including her editor Ellen Seligman, her friend and frequent collaborator John Berger and his wife Beverly, poet Mark Strand, artist Claire Wilks, Rosalind Michaels, and the wonderfully uncategorizable Leonard Cohen.)
Scattered throughout Infinite Gradation are brief celebrations of the life and art of a handful of artists that Michaels has admired: Eva Hesse, Jack Chambers, Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs, Etty Hillesum, and Claire Wilks.
When we consider the details of an artist’s life in relation to her art, it must not be with the presumption of solving a mystery, but in order to place one mystery next to another. Comparison is a blunt instrument, connection is not. Biography is an iceberg; a life is mostly submerged beyond our knowing.
Michaels is notoriously private about any details of her life own personal life. In an interview she once said “I really believe we read differently when we know even the most banal facts of an author’s life.” But in Infinite Gradation she can’t help but create some causal relationships between biography and art. She writes that the artist Eva Hesse’s “time in Germany – fear, her husband’s drinking and betrayals, language, other elements we can only guess at – released, awakened, provoked something in her and caused a dramatic shift in her art.” And, writing of the Canadian artist Jack Chambers (1931-1978), Michaels attributes the moment when “his art and perception opened fully to mystery“ to the time when he began his battle with leukaemia.
Michaels discusses at some length the very nature of writing itself, which she sees as a “privilege” that is nevertheless “philosophically, morally, emotionally, perilous.”
Morality is a muscle and must be exercised if we are to respond, to do the right thing instinctively—to overcome our hopelessness, our indifference, our shock. Literature is one place to exercise that muscle.
The writing in Infinite Gradation, Michaels’s first book of non-fiction, blends essay and poetry, using fragments that vary from a few very short paragraphs to several pages in length. The book itself is tall and narrow – about 4 by 7 inches – forcing the writing into narrow columns of type justified only on the left side, much like the typical appearance of poetry. Most of the book reads like prose—albeit very poetic prose—but occasionally Michaels can’t help but slip into pure poetry, because, inevitably, by saying less the poem can mean more.
you meet the gaze of a flower
like a woman’s face
you rest your head
in her lap
Infinite Gradation is a quiet, but insistent book, packed with nuggets of great beauty and insight. Between its fragments are blank spaces, moments of silence that encourage us to use these gaps to pause and reflect on the infinite gradations in our own lives.
Infinite Gradation is the second publication of House Sparrow Press which seems dedicated to given us writing to remember housed in objects that are lovely to hold. This printing of Infinite Gradation is limited to 600 copies.