Nationality: Canadian. Born: Toronto, 15 April 1958. Education: University of Toronto, B.A. 1980. Awards: Epstein Award, 1980; Commonwealth Prize for the Americas, 1986; Canadian Authors' Association Award for Poetry, 1991; National Magazine Award (Gold) for Poetry, 1991; Martin and Beatrice Fisher Award, 1997; Trillium Award, 1997; Orange Prize, 1997. Agent: c/o McLelland & Stewart, 481 University Avenue, Suite 900, Toronto, Ontario M5G 2E9, Canada. Address: Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Fugitive Pieces. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1996; New York, Knopf, 1997.
The Weight of Oranges. Toronto, Coach House, 1985.
Miner's Pond: Poems. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1991.
Skin Divers. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1999.
Poems: The Weight of Oranges, Miner's Pond, Skin Divers. New York, Knopf, 2000.
Contributor, Poets 88, edited by Ken Norris and Bob Hilderley. Kingston, Ontario, Quarry, 1988.
Contributor, Poetry by Canadian Women, edited by Rosemary Sullivan. Don Mills, Ontario, Oxford, 1989.
Contributor, Sudden Miracles: Eight Women Poets, edited by Rhead Tregebov. Toronto, Second Story Press, 1991.* * *
Three award-winning books of poetry, now published in one volume as Poems, and one novel, Fugitive Pieces, are hardly a writer's career, but a more auspicious beginning would be difficult to imagine. Fugitive Pieces was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was Winner of the Lannan Literary Fiction award, the Guardian Fiction award, the Trillium prize, the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel award, The Beatrice and Martin Fischer award (the main prize in the Jewish Book Awards), and England's prestigious Orange prize. It is at once one of the most poetic, harrowing, and complex considerations of the Holocaust, seeing it through the interlocked lives of a string of survivors, and a revelation of how people construct their selves, using not only personal events but knowledge of the natural world and history. Michaels is a poet writing a novel—in the tradition of Canadian novelist-poets Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Jane Urquhart—so every event, sight, and concept are held up to revelation through the miracle of language.
The central figures of Fugitive Pieces are Jacob Beer, who rises from the mud of Polish farm fields where he has hidden his seven-year-old self after the Nazis murdered his family; Athanasios Roussos, or Athos, the Greek geologist-polymath who smuggles Jacob from Poland to the island of Zakynthos and raises him after the War; and Ben, whose Holocaust-survivor parents immigrate to Toronto, where he becomes immersed in Jacob's heritage after the latter's death. Athos is a geologist, fascinated by limestone and the decay/preservation of wood, Jacob a Holocaust poet and writer on how the Nazis perverted archaeology to further the Aryan myth, and Ben a student of the relationship between weather and literature. These fascinations become the rich fields of metaphor for the Holocaust. Images of mud and burying, of Scott's ill-fated Antarctic expedition, and of Dostoyevsky's exile in the Siberian winter become testing places for human suffering and meaning.
In her poem "Miner's Pond" Michaels says, "Even now, I wrap whatever's most fragile / in the long gauze of science. / The more elusive the truth, / the more carefully it must be carried." "The long gauze of science" signals one source of Michael's poetic inspiration in Fugitive Pieces. Archaeology, geography, and meteorology, the sciences of man exposed in and on the hostile land, are the sciences of Michaels's narrators. The 1942 discovery of the caves at Lascaux is placed against the "Jews crammed into the earth then covered with a dusting of soil," and the discovery of the bog-preserved men is seen beside the Moorsoldaten, the "Peat Bog Soldiers" of Borgermoor Concentration Camp.
Fugitive Pieces has a frame of the lives of its characters, men for whom the varied loves of women provide surcease, yet who always return to the anguish of the Holocaust and its correlatives in all of human suffering. But the book's vitality is in its powerful, evocative weaving of images of past, present, and environment, a twisting relationship between the unnatural disaster of the Holocaust and the natural disasters man is heir to.
Truth emerges from Michaels's language like Jacob Beer rising from the mud of Poland. Of the Holocaust's relation to carbon dating she writes:
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.
Michaels, like many of the later characters in the novel, is not herself a Holocaust survivor but depicts a world forever changed for the children of the survivors and those drawn in by the pain of the survivors and their dead. The struggle is complex—a recognition of horror and pain beyond belief in nightmare and daily thought and behavior set into the shattered multifaceted gestures of caring and sacrificial love both in the Holocaust and by the living afterwards. This novel slowly extracts the sheer human will to understand and to give love to both the living and the dead. It is a remarkable achievement.