Words that captivate: you have been held


Words that captivate: you have been held

DEBORAH STEINMAIR is not always in the mood for crime fiction and domestic noir. Sometimes she wants to be overwhelmed by literary excellence.


CERTAIN books haunt you like a recurring dream. For weeks after reading them, you're lost to regular prose, clever storylines and pithy dialogue. Your inner ear yearns for that particular writer's word magic, the rhythm and footfall of her words, her luminous images that make landscapes appear. Anne Michaels is such writer.

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I read her youngest, Held, slowly, sounding it out like psalms. Michaels is fragmentary: from chunks of prose, characters and a history emerge. The reader becomes part of a frame of reference, a consciousness, a way of looking. Suddenly you are standing on holy ground and see a burning bush. You know you're walking on water and you start to doubt and sink. You wonder if you should ever write a word again.

I'll try to show you and I'm going to quote lavishly.

This thinnish novel follows the lives of two people and their descendants. It begins in 1917 on a battlefield in France. John is wounded and doesn't know if he is still alive. He can't hear anything and wonders where his shoes and feet are. I know of no man who can write about the horror of war like Michaels. Surely you have read Fugitive Pieces.

John returns from the war, to Helena, the love of his life. He's not the same. He limps and pain is a constant companion. He takes up photography and the magical process is no different from the process of seeing, of writing:

When he photographed now, it was something miraculous: the light that saw and made visible something invisible. He felt everything in his subjects’ faces, their fathomless sorrow and vulnerability as they sat motionless waiting for the light to seize their likeness. He felt the tiny buttons of the sitter’s dress, the hands in the lap, the pale skin alive beneath their nervous restraint, every place on their bodies they had been touched or remained untouched, every place neglected, ignored, scorned, forgotten, shamed, adored.

His camera sees more than the naked eye. Shadowy figures start to appear in his photographs: loved ones who have died hesitate in the background. He thinks:

A particle exists in space, a wave exists in time. Together they create a consciousness — consciousness itself the observer — and so the observed electron will always behave like both particle and wave, going forward into an ever-changing, single possibility … Why would it not be possible for the glass plate to capture what the eye cannot? … I believe it is the plate that captures the image from the cloud of possibilities, drawn forth by our desire.

This is what Michaels succeeds in doing: she sees with her consciousness and every sentence she writes down is infused with a cloud of possibilities, outcomes.

Decades later, we are in the company of John and Helena's daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. And granddaughter's fiancée. Characters line up in couples, like the animals for Noah's ark. Each couple's love is even more beautiful than their predecessors'. And perhaps there is a similarity, a sameness, in the absoluteness of the kindred spiritedness, the blissful togetherness filled with understanding and yearning. But this reader will never tire of it.

So defenceless and fragile is the characters' beautiful love — not for the same reasons that your and my romance is fragile (because he's a slob who doesn't put the toilet seat back down, because she's prone to departing for a destination in her head) but for monumental, tragic reasons: wars, natural disasters, devastation on a grand scale.

Even an “ordinary" description of a street in the morning takes your breath away:

One November morning, almost two months after his return, Alan walked to the end of his street and posted the letter. He noticed the blotting-paper sky absorbing the dusk, the bronze leaves soaked and shining, half-bare branches in the wind. He was wearing his father’s sweater. It smelled as it always did, of oiled wool and cedar-scented aftershave. He was not quite warm enough but was glad of the cold.

It's a world in which you want to linger endlessly, in short paragraphs that you savour on your tongue. It is full of timeless truths and it resonates like Bible verses. I don't know if there is a writer on earth who writes more poignantly, touchingly and memorably about loss:

The sky was saturating, a deeper blue, darkness rising from within. The snow was beginning to pinken in the fields. She felt the loss — the lifetime of it — of every night without him, of their communication, body to body, even in sleep. Loneliness is not emptiness but negation, with all its agonising precision, its absoluteness; exact, active; in every depth of detail, it is the inverse of love, the dark replica of love.

This book will hold you as the title suggests. You will have been held.

Held by Anne Michaels was published by Bloomsbury and costs R420 at Exclusive Books.

What do you read after Anne Michaels? Poetry. There's a new, thin volume from Wendy Cope: The Orange and other poems.

I have such high expectations of poetry. It has to be dense, concealing worlds between the lines, and you have to be able to read it over and over again, discovering something new every time. I don't like the kind of poem that makes me feel it might as well have been prose if the typography had been different — chopped up prose, I call it.

Cope's poems sometimes come close to that because they're so casual, almost mundane, but then — BOOM — towards the end comes the punchline that shines a strange, otherworldly light on the foregoing. Her poems are gems of simplicity. Hear this:

At lunchtime I bought a huge orange —
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave —
They got quarters and I had a half.

And that orange, it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park.
This is peace and contentment. It’s new.

The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all the jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I’m glad I exist.

Sometimes her poems are feather-light, limeric-like, witty like Dorothy Parker's:

The day he moved out was terrible —
That evening she went through hell.
His absence wasn’t a problem
But the corkscrew had gone as well.

In the end, her work is detached from time and place, resounding: “What’s the use of poetry? / You ask. Well, here’s a start: / It’s anecdotal evidence / About the human heart.

Finally, a short poem about leaving:

Next summer? The summer after?
With luck we’ve a few more years
Of sunshine and drinking and laughter
And airports and goodbyes and tears.

The Orange and other poems by Wendy Cope was published by Faber & Faber and costs R275 at Exclusive Books.

What are we listening to?

Anne Michaels reads from her poem “Correspondences".

♦ VWB ♦

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