Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Anne Michaels’ Category

Infinite Gradations of Mystery

Anne Michaels Gradation-001

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.

Railroad Conversations – part 2


A. – We may be one of the last generations with memories run through by trains.

In my two posts called Railroad Conversations, I’m looking at two books of prose and photographs about railways that each began as site specific artworks before being transformed into books. In both cases, the creators of the performed artworks and/or the publishers opted not to produce a publication that would serve as traditional documentation for the performances, but instead chose to create new literary works that would stand on their own.  This might have something to do with the fact that the performances were created by people who are primarily writers: Lavinia Greenlaw in the case of Audio Obscura (discussed in part 1 of Railroad Conversations) and Anne Michaels and John Berger, discussed below.  In each of these books, it is also curious to note that the photography was not part of the original performances but was newly added, undoubtedly to give the book some sense of its origins in the performative world.

Railtracks, by Canadian writer Anne Michaels and English writer, critic, and artist John Berger, is structured as a number of conversations between A. and J., who seem to be lovers with a long shared history of traveling that includes references to Canada, the United States, and Britain.  As the title hints at, Railtracks refers to the rail system as a whole, almost as a kind of living, breathing, and now dying body of technology and memories that symbolizes the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  In their brief conversations, which run from one to six pages apiece, A. and J. speak both of personal matters and of history, lacing their conversations with references to stations, tracks, freight trains, passenger cars, rail yards, timetables.  Even far away from the tracks themselves, one can still hear the ever present sound of trains and their whistles.  The railway symbolizes separation and return, exile, hope, despair, nostalgia, while railway stations have been places where people linger and dream, where men went off to war, and where lovers could meet in anonymity.

But it is the tracks themselves – with their paradoxical ability to represent parallel and converging lines at the same time – that serves as the key metaphor in these conversations.  Echoing this paradox, A. and J. speak of the intimacy possible across vast distances (thanks mostly to the telephone), and they reminisce about placing “trunk calls” through an operator from public telephone booths located in stations.  Love is enriched by separation, since separation implies the joy of reunion.  “Impossible now to think of train travel without a kind of tenderness – as if that is what love is: arrival after arrival,” A. says.

At times, the conversations turn highly allusive and start to resemble something very close to a poetry of suggestions.

A.  The noise of wagons gaining speed.
J.  The flight of starlings at dusk.
A.  The spitting sizzle of sausages being cooked.
J.  Political arguments.
A.  Sunday morning in bed.
J.  Pamphlets.
A.  Many different languages and hand signals.
J.  Scams of every kind.
A.  Friendships of every sort.


The conversations are separated by color photographs by Tereza Stehlíková, whose blurred images are of landscapes taken from inside moving trains.  In the book, the images are cropped with rounded corners suggesting the shape of train windows.  For me, her images evoke the cocooned separation one feels seated inside a train and watching the world whiz by, permitting one’s thoughts to turn inward.


A small note tucked in the back of Railtracks explains that the book constitutes the “full pre-perfomance text” of Vanishing Points, which was a site-specific work directed by Simon McBurney of Complicite and produced for “Here Is Where We Meet,” a season of cultural events dedicated to John Berger in 2005.  Here is the blurb about Vanishing Points from the season website:

Vanishing Points is a unique site-specific collaboration between the writer and commentator John Berger, poet and novelist Anne Michaels and theatre-maker Simon McBurney.  Vanishing Points takes its audience from the industrial to the metaphysical, from the huge movements of globalisation to the interior pulses of memory, and from the present to a past that still exists in vibrant, essential traces.  Vanishing Points speaks of memories and hidden histories, of arrivals and departures, of love and disappointments, seeking with reflective urgency to bear witness to changes that affect us all.  Vanishing Points takes place in the evocative setting of the historic German Gymnasium, located in the capital city’s largest transport nexus, Kings Cross and providing a compelling backdrop to explore the event’s themes of immigration, deportation and conflict.

It’s pretty clear that Vanishing Points and Railtracks are radically different beasts.  The book’s intimate two-person dialogue is replaced in the performance by multiple voices (none of which resemble a dialogue) and layers of sounds and multilingual background texts, transforming it into a considerably more political and historical project.  Since texts that do not appear in Railtracks can be heard in Vanishing Points,  I would hazard a guess that the odd qualifier “full pre-performance text” might mean that Railtracks is meant to document the text as originally written by Michaels and Berger, not as performed by Complicite.

As I wrote this post I kept looking for a place to insert my favorite line from the book, attributed to A., but I never found the right context.  So here is the line all by itself.

A photograph of a ghost is sound.

Railtracks was published in London by Go Together Press and in the U.S. by Counterpoint in Berkeley in 2012. This post is based on the U.S. edition.

railtracksusThe cover of the U.S. edition of Railtracks, with photograph by Tereza Stehlíková.