In a note accompanying her long-awaited sixth collection of poetry, Toronto poet laureate Anne Michaels asks: “What words can we have for the last weeks and hours before the imminent death of one we love?” In All We Saw, the acclaimed author of the CanLit classic Fugitive Pieces returns to her career-long argument with loss, this time as an elegy for two friends who passed away recently: the award-winning poet Mark Strand, for whom death was a constant theme, and the writer and artist John Berger, known for his BBC series and accompanying book, Ways of Seeing, with whom Michaels collaborated on the volume Vanishing Points.
Michaels begins in the liminal space marked by distances: “between your touch / and my cry” and “between the sea / and the dream of the sea.” The long poem “Sea of Lanterns” is driven by the necessity to articulate and overcome moments in which these distances are made visible. The tone is nostalgic and each representation of lack is filled with light and beauty.
But All We Saw is not a romantic project of loss or a yearning for the coalescence of representation and reality. It is a testament to continuing friendship enlivened by memory. The speaker of these poems is very rarely a solitary “I”; it is a communal “we”:
we arrive again an innumerable
entering as if from another life
saved by a moment
Michaels honours friendship with a deep attention. She allows us to relive the intensity of those fleeting experiences when we are wholly open to each other with generosity and love. She is with her companions in these memories – aware of the space between them, though the distance cannot separate them.
In All We Saw, the act of grieving achieves an intimacy with the dead. This is most apparent in the long poems, which comprise four of six sections in the collection. In “Bison,” the speaker conflates boundaries between beings and their environments to understand the immensity of each instant at the deathbed of her companion.
The lines here are sparer than in her prize-winning early collections Weight of Oranges and Miner’s Pond. Still, they are imbued with a torque of conviction – a hallmark of Michaels’s work. Consider “To Write,” a litany that begins and ends with the line: “because the dead can read.” It reveals a belief in the continuation of a conversation where poetry makes this possible: “every poem is a shade tree // between us we can say / always.”
All We Saw brims with a universal but writerly belief in a companionship that endures beyond death. It marks the return of a poet to her initial calling – a return forged of immense love and suffering that insists on the necessity of poetry to revive what is lost. These poems reveal the uncanny and difficult truth that acknowledges how the dead guide us. It is a brave work that shows us there are no limits to love.