Anne Michaels’ latest book, Correspondences, opens like an accordion. “Read it any way you like,” she suggests. “Move the pages so they rest by different pictures. Unfold the book into a circle and you’ll find the first and last words are the same – ‘the wet earth.’”
Michaels (BA 1980 UC) composed the book-length poem – an elegy for her father – as a way to explore how we remember people. The slim volume is illustrated with portraits of figures prominent during his lifetime, from Romanian poet Paul Celan to Albert Einstein and Helen Keller. “You can’t understand someone unless you can understand their historical moment,” says Michaels.
Sharing that belief is the book’s illustrator, Bernice Eisenstein. Eisenstein’s acclaimed autobiography, I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, explores how her identity was shaped by her parents, who met in Auschwitz.
“Bernice and I had an immediate understanding,” Michaels says. “We shared a strong feeling that each person whose portrait is in the book derives some shelter by being there. And since writers spend so much time alone with what they’re thinking of, it was a solace for me to collaborate with someone who understood what I was thinking about.”
Michaels is no stranger to aloneness, especially in the dark of night. Working on her second novel, The Winter Vault, when her children were small, she could only find time to write between 1 and 5 a.m. “That lasted for 10 years until I realized I was destroying my health,” she says.
This intensely private author seldom steps into public view, except at U of T. Michaels founded the long-distance creative writing program in the School of Continuing Studies and for five years has been an adjunct professor at University College, mentoring one creative writing student a year. She says that the architecture on the St. George campus creates a “sense of community,” and her fondness bubbles up in her writing. In her award-winning first novel, Fugitive Pieces, Michaels rescues a lead character, Athos Roussos, from wartorn Greece and tenderly places him in the University of Toronto geography department.