Excerpts: Fugitive Pieces (Anne Michaels)

I finished Fugitive Pieces before the tsunami took over 250000 lives, but I’ve only managed to get round to typing out my bookmarked passages today. Reading some of them again in the wake of a natural disaster that literally changed how our world turns, I haven’t been able to help reading them in a slightly different light, with new victims on my mind rather than the old.

It is facile to liken a tsunami to the Holocaust, but thankfully that won’t be necessary. This book is much less about whys, and more about what nows, and in that sense at least, the agony of the survivor is universal. Michaels explores this beautifully for the first two thirds or so of the book, but doesn’t manage to sustain it once protagonist Jakob Beer dies and a new character abruptly takes over the narrative. Ben feels like an unnecessary coda to what would have been a complete and admirably compact work on its own, and the reader doesn’t really get enough time or incentive to care very much about him.

Despite its acclaim, Anne Michaels’ writing doesn’t always hit the mark for me – I find some of her pseudo-poetic abstractions a little overindulgent and frankly rather meaningless – but when it does, it is profoundly evocative.

* * *

I watched Athos reading at his desk in the evenings, and saw my mother sewing at the table, my father looking through the daily papers, Bella studying her music. Any given moment – no matter how casual, how ordinary – is poised, full of gaping life. I can no longer remember their faces, but I imagine expressions trying to use up a lifetime of love in the last second. No matter the age of the face, at the moment of death a lifetime of emotion still unused turns a face young again.

* * *

Find a way to make beauty necessary; find a way to make necessity beautiful.

* * *

How many centuries before the spirit forgets the body? How long will we feel our phantom skin buckling over rockface, our pulse in magnetic lines of force? How many years pass before the difference between murder and death erodes?

Grief requires time. If a chip of stone radiates its self, its breath, so long, how stubborn might be the soul. If sound waves carry on to infinity, where are their screams now? I imagine them somewhere in the galaxy, moving forever towards the psalms.

* * *

Dusty and tired, we sat in Daphne and Kostas’s living room, with Daphne’s paintings of the city on the wall – all light and edges, a radiant cubism that in Greece is close to realism.

* * *

Translation is a kind of transubstantiation; one poem becomes another. You can choose your philosophy of translation just as you choose how to live: the free adaptation that sacrifices detail to meaning, the strict crib that sacrifices meaning to exactitude. The poet moves from life to language, the translator moves from language to life; both, like the immigrant, try to identify the invisible, what’s between the lines, the mysterious implications.

* * *

Alex shared the domestic work but drew the line at laundry and mending; as she would say, “Euripedes? Eumenides.”

[Does anyone else find this as HAHAHAHAHA funny as I do?]

* * *

I’m paralyzed in the cave her hair makes. Then my hands move to feel her slim waist and suddenly I know how she would bend after a shower, twisting her hair into a wet turban, feel the shape her back would make, leaning over. I hear her small voice – long phrases of music and stillness like an oar balanced in its arc above the water, dripping silver. I hear her voice but not her words, so soft; the noise of her whole body is in my ears. Instead of the dead inhaling my breath with their closeness, I am deafened by the buzzing drone of Michaela’s body, the power lines of blood, blue threads under her skin. Cables of tendons, the forests of bone in her wrists and feet. Each time she stops speaking, in each long pause, I renew the pressure of my grasp. I feel her slowly going heavy. How beautiful the blood’s pull towards trust, the warm weight of the sleeper entering her orbit, pulling towards me, fragrant, heavy and still as apples in a bowl. Not the stillness of something broken, but of rest.

* * *

I cross over the boundary of skin into Michaela’s memories, into her childhood. On the dock when she is ten, the tips of her braids wet as paint brushes. Her cool brown back under a worn flannel shirt, washed so many times it’s as soft as the skin of earlobes. The smell of the cedar dock baking in the sun. Her slippery child’s belly, her bird legs. How different to swim later, as a woman, the lake fingering her with cold; and how, even now in a lake, she can’t swim without romance shaping her energies as if she were still a girl swimming into her future. In the evening the sky lightens with dusk, above the darkening fringe of trees. She rows, singing verses of ballads. She imagines the stars as peppermints and holds them in her mouth until they dissolve.


  1. This was the first book I bought when I arrived in London in 1999 (cue some Barbara Streisand song about memories). I found it extremely soporific. She should write poetry instead of prose. From what I remember, she’s quite a competent writer, but one of those who’s probably better in small doses for the general reading public.

  2. your comments for the sandman quiz doesn’t work

    I so wanted to comment: is it just me, or does that cartoon look remarkably like MJ?

  3. Without wishing to kick a man when he’s down, I’d still hazard that MJ belongs more in the realm of delirium.

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