World Poetry Day 2016: Last Night’s Moon by Anne Michaels

On World Poetry Day 2016, I came across this arresting poem by Anne Michaels, from her third collection Skin Divers, during a brief pause in my day. I read her incredible Orange Prize winning novel Fugitive Pieces whilst studying Holocaust Literature at university yet all these years later only now come to read her as a poet. I remember that novel for its impact, for her ability to convey a searing truth, for her words to connect me to a haunting reality that must never be forgotten.

Last Night’s Moon holds a different space, though is still very much preoccupied with a life lived under the influence of memory and the search for identity. It is a beautiful warning,  the push and pull of the past and present at times evocative of The Four Quartets. At once dreamlike and earthy, Michaels draws us in with longings only to set us straight:

‘But if, like starlings, we continue to navigate
by the rear-view mirror
of the moon….
if still we wish
we’d waited for morning,
we will know ourselves


 Last Night’s Moon 

“When will we next walk together
under last night’s moon?”
     – Tu Fu

March aspens, mist
forest. Green rain pins down
the sea, early evening
cyanotype.  Silver saltlines, weedy
toques of low tide, pillow lava’s
black spill indelible
in the sand. Unbroken
broken sea.


Rain sharpens marsh-hair
birth-green of the spring firs.
In the bog where the dead never disappear,
where river birch drown, the surface
strewn with reflection.  This is the acid-soaked
moss that eats bones, keeps flesh;
the fermented ground where time stops and
doesn’t; dissolves the skull, preserves
the brain, wrinkled pearl in black mud.


In the autumn that made love
necessary, we stood in rubber boots
on the sphagnum raft and learned
love is soil–stronger than peat or sea–
melting what it holds.

The past
is not our own. Mole’s ribbon of earth,
termite house,
soaked sponge.  It rises,
keloids of rain on wood; spreads,
milkweed galaxy, broken pod
scattering the debris of attention.
Where you are
while your body is here, remembering
in the cold spring afternoon.

The past
is a long bone.


Time is like the painter’s lie, no line
around apple or along thigh, though the apple
aches to its sweet edge, strains
to its skin, the seam of density.  Invisible line
closest to touch.  Lines of wet grass
on my arm, your tongue’s
wet line across my back.

All the history in the bone-embedded hills
of your body.  Everything your mouth
remembers.  Your hands manipulate
in the darkness, silver bromide
of desire darkening skin with light.


Disoriented at great depths,
confused by the noise of shipping routes,
whales hover, small eyes squinting as they consult
the magnetic map of the ocean floor.  They strain,
a thousand miles through cold channels;
clicking thrums of distant loneliness
bounce off seamounts and abyssal plains.  They look up
from perpetual dusk to rods of sunlight,
a solar forest at the surface.  

Transfixed in the dark summer
kitchen: feet bare on humid
linoleum, cilia listening.  Feral
as the infrared aura of the snake’s prey, the bees’
pointillism, the infrasonic
hum of the desert heard by the birds.
The nighthawk spans the ceiling;
swoops.  Hot kitchen air
vibrates.  I look up
to the pattern of stars under its wings.


If love wants you; if you’ve been melted
down to stars, you will love
with lungs and gills, with warm blood
and cold.  With feathers and scales.
Under the hot gloom of the forest canopy
you’ll want to breathe with the spiral
calls of birds, while your lashing tail
still gropes for the waes.  You’ll try
to haul your weight from simple sea
to gravity of land.  Caught by the tide,
in the snail-slip of your own path, for moments
suffocating in both water and air.
If love wants you, suddently your past is
obsolete science.  Old maps,
disproved theories, a diorama.

The moment our bodies are set to spring open.
The immanence that reassembles matter
passes through us then disperses
into time and place:
the spasm of fur stroked upright; shocked electrons.
The mother who hears her child crying upstairs
and suddenly feels her dress
wet with milk.
Among black branches, oyster-coloured fog
tongues every corner of loneliness we never knew
before we were loved there,
the places left fallow when we’re born,
waiting for experience to find its way
into us.  The night crossing, on deck
in the dark car.  On the beach where
night reshaped your face.
In the lava fields, carbon turned to carpet,
moss like velvet spread over splintered forms.

The instant spray freezes
in air above the falls, a gasp of ice.
We rise, hearing our names
called home through salmon-blue dusk, the royal moon
an escutcheon on the shield of sky.
The current that passes through us, radio waves,
electric lick.  The billions of photons that pass
through film emulsion every second, the single
submicroscopic crystal struck
that becomes the phograph.
We look and suddenly the world
looks back.  
A jagged tube of ions pins us to the sky.


But if, like starlings, we continue to navigate
by the rear-view mirror
of the moon; if we continue to reach
both for salt and for the sweet white
nibs of grass growing closest to earth;
if, in the autumn bog red with sedge we’re also
driving through the canyon at night,
all around us the hidden glow of limestone
erased by darkness; if still we wish
we’d waited for morning,
we will know ourselves
Not in the mirrors of waves
or in the corrading stream,
not in the wavering
glass of an apartment building,
not in the looming light of night lobbies
or on the rainy deck.  Not in the autumn kitchen
or in the motel where we watched meteors
from our bed while your slow film, the shutter open,
turned stars to rain.

We will become
indigestible.  Afraid
of choking on fur
and armour, animals
will refuse the divided longings
in our foreing blue flesh.


In your hands, all you’ve lost,
all you’ve touched.
In the angle of your head,
every vow and
broken vow.  In your skin,
every time you were disregarded,
every time you were received.
Sundered, drowsed.  A seeded field,
mossy cleft, tidal pool, milky stem.
The branch that’s released when the bird lifts
or lands.  In a summer kitchen.
On a white winter morning, sunlight across the bed.


Try to keep everything and keep
standing.  In the tall grass,
ten thousand shadows.  What’s past,
all you’ve been,
will continue its half-life,
a carbon burn searing its way to heaven
through the twisted core of a pine.
At night, memory will roam your skin.
Your dreams will reveal the squirming world
under the lifted stone.
While you sleep, the sea
floods your house, you wake
to silt, long brown weeds
tangled in the sheets.  You wake
in the bog, caked with the froth of peat,
stunted as shore pine,
growing a metre a century.

The bog bruised with colour,
muskeg, hardpan, much.
Matted green sphagnum
thick as buffalo fur.
Sinking into, bouyed
by spongy ground;
walking on water.

In time, night after night,
we’ll begin to dream of a langsam sea,
waves in slow motion, thickening to sand.
Drenched with satiety we’ll be slow
to rise, a metre a century.

Our brown bed is peat,
born of water, flooded,
burning with the smell of earth.

from Skin Divers published by Bloomsbury.