Sometimes I pretend you’re in the other room until it rains: four poems by Anne Michaels

Turning Twenty-Three

You turned twenty-two in the rain.
We walked in rubber boots
along Lowther, the shiny street as albumen
under streetlamps.

At midnight, the sky suddenly clear
we drove your jazz-filled car
through cold, pungent streets to the lake
where we collected stones by flashlight.
The wind wrapped us in its torsions,
we couldn’t hear each other although we shouted,
wet with star-swallowing waves.

By morning the stones we’d found
were dull with air,
but I couldn’t forget the smell
of the trees’ intimate darkness
the scattered sound of the rain’s distracted hands,
husks of buds in green pools on the sidewalks.

To love one person above all others
is despair, you said, turning twenty-two.
Propaganda of the senses, the narrow-minded heart.

We are magnets, averted
by our sameness.

Above the corrugated, elastic lake
the darkening sky holds out its arms.
A thousand miles away, you’re turning twenty-three

I repeat your name, each time different
into sand, into moonlight.

Far off, the lake crumbles at its edges,
the sky holds out its arms.


The Weight of Oranges

My cup’s the same sand color as bread.
Rain’s the same colour of a building across the street,
its torn red dahlias
and ruined a book propped on the sill.

Rain articulates the skins of everything,
pink of bricks from the fire they baked in,
lizard green leaves,
the wrinkled tongues of pine cones.
It’s accurate the way we never are,
bringing out what’s best
without changing a thing.
Rain that makes beds damp,
our room a cave in the morning,
a tent in late afternoon,
ignites the sound of leaves we miss all winter.
The sound that pulled us to bed…
caught in the undertow of wind in wet leaves.

I’m writing in the sound we woke to,
curtains breathing into a half-dark room.

I’m up early now, walking.
Remember our walks, horizons like lips
barely red at dawn,
how kind the distance seemed?
Letters should be written to send news, to say
send me news, to say
meet me at the train station.
Not these dry tears, to honour us like a tomb.
I’m ashamed of our separation.
I wake in the middle of the night and see “shame”
written in the air like a Bible story.
I dreamed my skin was tattooed,
covered with the words that put me here,
covered in sores, in quarantine—and you know what?
I was afraid to light the lamp and look.

Your husband’s a good builder—I burned
every house we had,
with a few words to start the flames.
Words of wood,
they had no power of their own.
“The important” gave them meaning
and humble with gratitude
they exploded in my face.

Now we’re like planets, holding to each other
from a great distance. When we lay down
oceans flexed their green muscles,
life got busy in the other hemisphere,
the globe tilted, bowing to our power!
Now we’re hundreds of miles apart,
our short arms keep us lonely,
no one hears what’s in my head.
I look old. I’m losing my hair.
Where does lost hair go in this world,
lost eyesight, teeth?
We grow old like rivers, get shrunk and doubled over
until we can’t find the mouth of anything.

It’s March, even the birds
don’t know what to do with themselves.

Sometimes I’m certain those who are happy
know one thing more than us… or one thing less.
The only book I’d write again
is our bodies closing together.
That’s the language that stuns,
scars, breathes into you.
Naked, we had voices!

I want you to promise
we’ll see each other again,
you’ll send a letter.
Promise we’ll be lost together
in our forest, pale birches of our legs.

I hear your voice now—I know,
everyone knows promises come from fear.
People don’t live past each other,
you’re always here with me. Sometimes
I pretend you’re in the other room
until it rains… and then
this is the letter I always write:
The letter I write
when they’re keeping me from home.
I smell your supper steaming in the kitchen.
There are paper bags on the table
with their bottoms melted out
by rain and the weight of oranges.


Depth of Field

“The camera relieves us of the burden of memory …
records in order to forget.”  – John Berger

We’ve retold the stories of our lives
by the time we reach Buffalo,
sun coming up diffuse and prehistoric
over the Falls.

A white morning,
sun like paint on the windshield.
You drive, smoke, wear sunglasses.

Rochester, Camera Capital of America.
Stubbing a cigar in the lid of a film cannister,
the Kodak watchman gives directions.

The museum’s a wide-angle mansion.
You search the second storey from the lawn,
mentally converting bathrooms to darkrooms.

A thousand photos later,
exhausted by second-guessing
the mind which invisibly surrounds each image,
we nap in a high school parking lot,
sun leaning low as the trees
over the roof of the warm car.

Driving home. The moon’s so big and close
I draw a moustache on it and smudge the windshield.
I stick my fingers in your collar to keep you awake.
I can’t remember a thing about our lives before this morning.

We left our city at night and return at night.
We buy pineapple and float quietly through the neighbourhood,
thick trees washing themselves in lush darkness,
or in the intimate light of streetlamps.
In summer the planer’s heavy with smells of us,
stung with the green odour of gardens.
Heat won’t leave the pavement
until night is almost over.

I’ve loved you all day.
We take the old familiar Intertwine Freeway,
begin the long journey towards each other
as to our home town with all its lights on.


Phantom Limbs

So much of the city
is our bodies. Places in us
old light still slants through to.
Places that no longer exist but are full of feeling,
like phantom limbs.

Even the city carries ruins in its heart.
Longs to be touched in places
only it remembers.

Through the yellow hooves
of the ginkgo, parchment light;
in that apartment where I first
touched your shoulders under your sweater,
that October afternoon you left keys
in the fridge, milk on the table.
The yard – our moonlight motel –
where we slept summer’s hottest nights,
on grass so cold it felt wet.
Behind us, freight trains crossed the city,
a steel banner, a noisy wall.
Now the hollow diad
floats behind glass
in office towers also haunted
by our voices.

Few buildings, few lives
are built so well
even their ruins are beautiful.
But we loved the abandoned distillery:
stone floors cracking under empty vats,
wooden floors half rotted into dirt;
stairs leading nowhere; high rooms
run through with swords of dusty light.
A place the rain still loved, its silver paint
on rusted things that had stopped moving it seemed, for us.
Closed rooms open only to weather,
pungent with soot and molasses,
scent-stung. A place
where everything too big to take apart
had been left behind.

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Sometimes I pretend you’re in the other room until it rains: four poems by Anne Michaels

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