Re-Membering the (W)holes: Counter-memory, Collective Memory, and Bergsonian Time in Anne Michaels’ Miner’s Pond
by Kimberly Verwaayen
Anne Michaels’ collection of poems, Miner’s Pond (1991), constitutes a "living" monument in art, a deeply committed post-holocaust testament to memory in an epoch that Alexander and Margaret Mitscherlich have identified as characterized by a "collective denial of the past" (28).1 The collection lyrically commemorates the victimized voices of historically persecuted poets, painters, photographers, physicists, and philosophers by concommitently interweaving historical "fact" with personal detail and intimate particulars. As Michaels writes in the concluding poem of Miner’s Pond,
language is how ghosts enter the
• • •
Miner’s Pondis such a writing; it gives life to the past. The text’s participation in the theories of counter-memory (the escape into the familiar, the ordinary), of collective memory (the shared recollections, re-memberings of a group), and finally, of Henri Bergson’s notion of "inner" time reveals an art that is engaged in exploring the wounds of oppressive society and in finding time to inquire into alternative and healing modes of (inter)action. Miner’s Pond, then, can be said to be committed to re-membering (w)holes.
This remembering is performed by the poems of Miner’s Pond in their dialogic collection of historically silenced and oppressed voices granted speech, a strategy that George Lipsitz identifies with counter-memory. According to Lipsitz, counter-memory excavates the past (like a miner?) for the "hidden histories" excluded from the dominant narratives—to furnish novel perspectives on prior events (213). For Michaels, the peripheral discourse of the oppressed must be heard through memory, for the master narrative of history is untrustworthy in its capacity to erase and omit facts, to airbrush figures from photos—whereas "memory endures" ("Cleopatra’s Love" 15).2 Truth, according to Michaels, is elusive: "I wanted badly that truth be a single thing," says the voice of German novelist Alfred Doeblin3 in one of Miner’s Pond’s opening pieces, "Sublimation" (line 63), but such desire approaches impossibility. And yet, memories shared on the personal level attempt to recover veracity:
Iwona Irwin-Zarecka suggests that while we may recognize that the "realities" of the past are socially constructed, we must also understand that "the process is not a discursive free-for-all. . . . ‘Memory’ has a referent, a reality it connects us to" (18). The "reality" to which memory appends us in the poems is the corporeality of the lyrical, subjective voices from the past, not disembodied but made flesh, voices not heard in the history texts, voices that "counter" the dominant memory. Lipsitz defines counter-memory as
a way of remembering and forgetting that starts with the local, the immediate, and the personal. Unlike historical narratives4 that begin with the totality of human existence and then locate specific actions and events within that totality, counter-memory starts with the particular and the specific and then builds outward toward a total story.5 (213)
For Lipsitz, then, counter-memory is a counter-discourse that reframes the dominant narratives (which profess to represent universal experiences) by altering the focus toward "localized experiences" of expression (213). In Miner’s Pond, displaced and persecuted voices are given a liberating articulation in lyrical auto/ biography that remembers familiar sights and smells. In "Sublimation," for example, the speaker (Alfred Doeblin)6 achieves a moment of wholeness or peace through personal memory:
Last night I looked out
In a world of flux and sometimes frightening instability, the familiarity of recollected kitchen smells and spices, of family rituals, of the ordinary world of daily experience, grants refuge, a sense of continuity—and contiguity with an intimate community. The autobiographical framing poems "Miner’s Pond" and "What the Light Teaches" (not specifically identifiable with a proper name/a de-fined victim of oppression) are clearly commemorative celebrations of the local and the personal. The speaker remembers Glenholme Avenue, habitual trips to the bakery with her brother ("Miner’s Pond"), and shared experiences with her childhood/lifelong friend ("What the Light Teaches"). Such memory, clearly, plays an important function in the process toward wholeness of the speaker, articulated in the figure of healing illumination:
We float in death,
• • •
• • •
Thus, through escape into the subjective, into the familiar, counter-memory is also a forgetting. As Lipsitz contends, memory that leaves history to the oppressor, that cannot recall a world of desire or comfort detached from the world of persecution and necessity, is powerless to challenge the hegemony of dominant discourse (212). Surely it is exactly this kind of forgetting, in a text unarguably engaged with remembrance, that Michaels embraces:
Remembering we learn to forget.
• • •
This strategy of forgetting, or rather remembering to forget, commands much of the final poem, as the speaker reiterates a desire for the commonplace, the familiar; she aspires towards a prior subjective memory to flee past oppression:
Our father’s daughters, we can't
Again, the escape into counter-memory as a necessary survival strategy is further revealed by the speaker’s prayer to release her father from his painful history; she entreats the sky to "deliver him from memory," to transform him into music, to flood his brain with "melody so powerful / it would stretch molecules, dismantle thought" ("What the Light Teaches" 4.9-10). Sometimes memories of the "holes," of the pain of past experiences, must be superseded by healing means of achieving greater "whole"ness—in the comfort of music, of family, of the familiar.
But dominated as the poems seem to be by a subscription/ adherence to counter-memory, Halbwachean theory of collective memory also appears as an important component in the collection. Collective memory7 is intricately related, according to Irwin-Zarecka, to the sense of collective identity individuals come to acquire (9). Maurice Halbwachs argues this idea further in claiming that "there are no individual intuitions or memories" (Collective Memory 12) since personal remembrances are always socially shaped or "framed." For Halbwachs, then, autobiographical memory is memory of events that individuals have personally experienced, but it is more than individual consciousness, for autobiographical memory is "always rooted in other people" (Coser 24) and serves as a monument to reinforce bonds between participants (as when a husband and wife commemorate their anniversary. See, for example, "Anniversary"8 in Miner’s Pond). Family bonds (so central in the framing poems and, indeed, throughout Michaels’ book) are forged through collective identity and rely on shared experiences and reminiscences; it is the family that forms an individual’s first collectivity, and family that is the principle collective treated by Halbwachs. As Halbwachs argues, family members all participate in the same daily life; despite differences in temperaments and later geographic separation, each member of the group must always recollect in his or her fashion the common familial past (On Collective Memory 54). For Michaels, a brother might now reside in "another hemisphere" but it is "brother love" ("Miner’s Pond" 2.108) that the speaker especially remembers in the title poem. Reminiscences of a sister figure (now married and moved away) and their shared experiences command most of the concluding poem in "What the Light Teaches." The figure of the father, too, overshadows both poems. But, clearly, the notion of collectivity so prevalent in the poems is not solely fixed on the family, for the bonds and shared experiences of lovers and friends interweave throughout the body of Michaels’ collection. Indeed, all of the poems express a Halbwachian exhibition of collectivity in the sense that their subjective explorations always involve an other/another: almost half of the poems directly appeal in their reminiscences to a "you" figure,9 and all of the poems employ the "we" pronoun to explore memory through and with other individuals. Collective memory is the very heart10 and soul of this collection that celebrates community and remembers oppression.
It is important to recognise that in Halbwachs’ theory of collective memory, a distinction is made between two kinds of memory— personal as opposed to social memory, or, more accurately, "autobiographical" and "historical" memory (Collective Memory 52). Historical memory is the accretion and interpretation of past events by social institutions, by members of a group; it naturally encompasses a broader expanse of time than personal memory. Yet since, as Halbwachs recognizes, our life history partakes in general history, autobiographical memory makes use of the historical and the opposition ultimately breaks down (Collective Memory 57). This conflation of the social and personal seems to underlie Michaels’ use of the autobiographical voice in her treatment of historical personages, people she surely cannot have known but whose voices she writes. Halbwachs argues that during a lifetime an individual can "remember" events not lived but knowable from media and from others directly involved:
These events occupy a place in the memory of the nation, but I myself did not witness them. In recalling them, I must rely entirely upon the memory of others, a memory that comes, not as corroborator or completer of my own, but as the very source of what I wish to repeat. (Collective Memory 51)
Michaels makes a startlingly similar distinction between the personal and the public that she, too, in a sense, deconstructs:
Memory haunts us until we attempt meaning; this is how the poem can haunt us; both collective memory—things we haven’t experienced personally—as well as deep personal memory. (And when a poem successfully merges the collective and the personal, its power intensifies.) ("Cleopatra’s Love" 15)
This intensity is inextricably connected to her belief in the force of art as a social corrective. "It’s been said," she writes in "Unseen Formations," that
poetry is a response to silence, and
in some sense that’s true; as John Berger wrote: "to break
the silence of events, to speak of experience
For Michaels, memory not heard is memory lost, missed opportunity for social awareness:
A writer buried his testimony
From this buried testament grow "orchids and weeds," symbols at once of gorgeous hope and needless neglect. Jean-François Lyotard has commented on this mnemonic neglect, on the scarcity of signs of mourning and melancholia in present-day society: "the men and women of my generation in Germany imposed on their children a forty-year silence about the ‘Nazi interlude.’ This interdiction against anamnesis stands as a symbol for the entire Western world" (in Santner 8). Can there be progress, Lyotard asks, without remembrance? For Halbwachs, too, shared memory is essential for the survival of the group; the need to write the history of an age, a society, or even a person is aroused when the memory of involvement in events or of their consequences, or accounts from participants and witnesses, are "lost amid new groups for whom these facts no longer have interest because the events are definitely external to them"11 (Collective Memory 78-9). When this occurs, says Halbwachs (as surely is happening in our present complacency toward the Holocaust) the only means of preserving such remembrances is to write them, for "writings remain even though the thought and the spoken word die" (Collective Memory 79). The writer must hope that such testament will not be buried but re(in)surrected by society. This need for individuals to bear witness (a self-preservation at once personal and social, subjective and shared) is marked in the concluding poem of Miner’s Pond, "What the Light Teaches," by the collective "we":
We spend hours by the river,
Thus in Michaels’ view, language and voice are powerful, the "repository of cultural and personal memory; language remembers" ("Cleopatra’s Love" 15). But language/art as a repository of history as well as of collective memory can also be corrupt ("Cleopatra’s Love" 15); Michaels is aware, in a volume concerned with oppression and persecution, of the power of the word, in speech that acts, to abuse, deceive, or betray: "Whole cities were razed [not raised] with a word" ("What the Light Teaches" 9.1). For Michaels, the euphemism especially is a dangerous example of language’s power to mislead: "The simple absorption of events without ethical consideration can be devastating. The most obvious example is the euphemism: the exploding bomb referred to as ‘energy release’" ("Cleopatra’s Love" 15). Euphemism, like the act of airbrushing history, alters the record, invites individuals to shroud themselves from confronting truth and reality, allows complicity in atrocities by making these less horrendous, even agreeable; there is collaboration between language and act. But the critic-poet mines for the darkness buried deep:
The English translations, "number," and "oven," ordinary, familiar words, helped to disguise for the world, in its various languages, particular realities, crimes against humanity, during the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands of individuals lost all sense of self, autonomy, and became, in the Nazi regime, "numbers"; and, when literally their "number was up," they were sent to devices of death complacently called ovens (those kitchen appliances that for many conjure thoughts of muffins and apple pie). Concepts of victimhood and ghastly death (and their requisite reality, demand for responsibility) might thus be said to be masked by everyday language. Or perhaps the words "number" and "oven" participate in what George Steiner has called the distrustfulness of language: to use words, he argues, as if they could ever fully convey human emotion and experience is to commit "indecency," since there is always a death in language, a failure of words, in the face of the inhuman (Steiner 70; 71). Like Michaels, Steiner knows that language can dissolve moral and political values: "The language of a community has reached a perilous state when a study of radioactive fall-out can be entitled ‘Operation Sunshine’" (46); perhaps more forcefully, he invites us to "[l]ook at all these good folk ‘cooking their little pea-soup over a blue gas-flame and thinking nothing of it.’ Why should they? What’s wrong with gas-ovens?" (138). But of course there is something wrong—and for the survivors, both those who experienced the monstrosities and those who mourn through memory with them—language and the way we perceive the world are irreconcilably altered:12
What was left but to cut out one’s
"Earth" and "water," (as from a miner’s pond?) are words for sensuous experience, words that associate climbing mountains and swimming lakes—but they are also the words for grave sites for the dead. Thus, language is a "net of densities"("Cleopatra’s Love" 15) capable of creating and communicating change—affirmatively or destructively, depending on the responsibility of its use.
Michaels recognizes also that there is power to generate change beyond the capacity of language, through the body. She allies the body with her art: "For me, the best writing doesn’t let me forget the body for too long" ("Unseen Formations" 98). The relationship is hierarchical: she privileges the instinctive body over language:13
Fulfilment is wordless,
The use of the words "inner eye" indicates that the leap is back to the body, that communication is intuited rather than arbitrarily or conventionally received.14 Indeed, something like a conscious instinct runs fluidly as a current through the poems subscribing, in so doing, to Bergson’s doctrine of intuition. For Bergson, the individual is capable of experiencing knowledge deeper than that of the intellect (Gunn 102), for the intellect is responsible for generating concepts that are static, omit experience, and ignore the flux of things and the vital contact with life itself (Gunn 103). Michaels, too, privileges intuition (imaged by the body) over intellect ("Cleopatra’s Love" 16), and embraces continuity: "We look and look with our bodies," she says, "into present moments to enter what has passed there before us, to take apart a moment like a landscape— geologically, anthropologically, atomically" ("Cleopatra’s Love" 15). Thus, it is the intuiting body ("suddenly the skin surmises") that is responsible for memory preserved in her art:
the poem is poised between knowing and
mystery; for who can ever explain the answering of the body to
experience? . . . The poem attempts to represent the layers of meaning
hidden in experience, as if it were a geological slice, a strand of DNA.
Suggestive as reminiscence.
Throughout the poems, instinct and memory interweave, figured paricularly in the analogy between the natural world and humanity;15 like geese, "we carry each year in our bodies. / Our blood is time" ("Miner’s Pond" 3.18-19), and again,
Like loons we travel underwater
• • •
According to Bergson’s theory of intuition, space and measurable time are irrelevant to the durée. Halbwachs (once a disciple of Bergson) remarks of this philosophy that it necessarily entails the erasure of all that reminds us of space and external objects in order to gain awareness of our inner and personal thought (Collective Memory 94). For Bergson, a direct perception of inner time assures free will, and allows access to both the "fundamental" and "social" selves that constitute every person's personality; this introspection allows us "to grasp our inner states as living things, constantly becoming,16 as states not amenable to measure" (Time and Free Will 232).
These notions of the immeasurability of real time and of ceaseless process are manifestations of the idea of the continuous stream of time that also runs as an undercurrent through Miner's Pond: "At Miner’s Pond we use the past / to pull ourselves forward; rowing" ("Miner’s Pond" 1.40-41). In Bergson’s durée, each instant contains within it the entire flow of the past (perhaps this is why the sea in "A Lesson From the Earth" is so vast it swallows geometry, but not time, in lines 98-99). According to Bergson, we cannot measure the duration of the real because of this indivisible flow; time has no atomistic, measurable parts (Duration and Simultaneity vi). Yet humanity insists on measurement, and immanent in this desire exists the tendency, argues Bergson, to empty time’s content into a space where past, present, and future are juxtaposed for all eternity—a tendency that reveals the need to replace la durée with "countable" simultaneities which do not endure, and thus do not comprise "real time" (Duration and Simultaneity 60). (Bergson’s apperception of the inadequacy of clock time feeds into Einstein’s recognition that there is no natural method for establishing the time, according to any given clock, of an event at a distance from that clock [Duration and Simultaneity xxi].)17 Certainly, Bergsonian continuity seems to un-derlie the intention of Michaels’ collection, for she says in "Unseen Formations" that
[t]he title of my last book, Miner's Pond tries to hint that being able to see the water’s surface and down to the bottom at the same time—the present moment and the past—are of equal importance. The significance of a present moment is not that it is a gate to the past, but that it takes place in a significant, mysterious [continuous] narrative. Reaching back, like looking at the stars, the poem is illuminated by forward light. (97)
In the poems of Miner’s Pond, the notion of collapsed time and continuity predominates: "Everywhere the past juts into the present; / mountains burst from one era to another / or crumple up millennia, time joining at its ends" ("What the Light Teaches" 5.8-10). The speaker in the title poem describes a Bergsonian duration:
They were rockhounds howling in
the plastic light
"Time," here juxtaposed with a "continuous present," suggests that time contains both past and present within it; it is "a geological glimpse" in the sense that any duration consists of densities, of layers. No moment is static, but feeds on, is informed by, all before it in the moment of be(com)ing. Michaels indicates that this concept of flowing past and present underpins, in addition to the autobiographical voices in her poetry, the auto/biographical ones:
In keeping with my sense of the poem
as a slice of time, I’ve tried several ways of exploring the ways in
which a life can embody an age, historically and geologically, including
writing biographical "monologues." An attempt to collapse
time. . . . A voice that reaches you over a great distance of time and
space. . . .
For a writer concerned to see the future escape the horrors of the past, this inseparability of time might be considered problematic. However, Bergson’s concept of the power of memory and its ability to shape consciousness accommodates social commitment: "consciousness," he argues,
cannot go through the same state twice. The circumstances may be the same, but they will act no longer on the same person, since they find him [or her] at a new moment of his [or her] history. (Creative Evolution 8)
Because the human personality, developing as experiences accumulate, is endlessly self-creating, duration is irreversible: "we could not live over again a single moment" (Creative Evolution 8)—and therefore a known and remembered history cannot repeat itself.
That humanity is in the process of ever-becoming forms an integral component, the theoretical centre, of the elan vital, Bergson’s theory of the flux of a universe in constant motion.18 Because true duration entails ceaseless creation, the universe must per force exist in a state of continuous fluctuation and transmutation (Creative Evolution 373). For Bergson, this movement is associated with awareness, with intuition/spirit:
Let us try to see, no longer with the eyes of the intellect alone, which grasps only the already made and which looks from the outside, but with the spirit. . . . To movement, then, everything will be restored, and into movement, everything will be resolved. (Creative Evolution 273)
Intuition brings, as Alexander Gunn says, "intunation" with the élan vital; it allows a feeling of emotional synthesis (109). For Bergson, participation in the creative universe involves "sympathetic communication . . . between us and the rest of the living . . . [a] reciprocal interpenetration" (Creative Evolution 195). In Miner’s Pond we see this symbiosis:19 in "Blue Vigour," the Isak Dinesen voice speaks of a cooperative correspondence with all around her as a means of sharing with/partaking in her absent lover:
because the only way to love you
• • •
And the "lesson" we learn from the earth is "that the greater must make room for the small" ("A Lesson from the Earth" 77). In "On the Terrace," the speaker remarks, "When I was young, I wanted to move with the world, / didn’t realize the world moves in us" (28-29). The distiction is between "with" (as simultaneous but separate) and "in" (as synthesis). As D.M.R. Bentley has argued, ecological poetics—the idea of humanity and nature as a community of interdependent parts—is the means by which the fissures and gaps among people, their world, and their emotions, might be sutured (274); thus, again, Bergsonism is attractive to art dedicated to searching for recovery, for wholes.
Miner's Pond is a small but dense book. It arrives like a moment that hovers suspended, en/dures, like a flash of illumination (spots before my eyes) that alters my vision forever. The collection reveals ceaseless commitment both lyrically to its art (it is aesthetically gorgeous poetry) and socially to its community of readers. Memory, memory, memory—to forget, to commemorate, to participate in the vital world around us—raises the poetry like a monument to stand as the testimonial of many voices, a re-membering to engage solidarity from solitude.20 Michaels has said that "the poem enters the body through the brain: it is a taste crushed open in the mouth as a sound; vowels of light in our eye; it summons bodily experience universal and yet intimate to each of us" ("Cleopatra’s Love" 15; emphasis added). Surely the conscious reader responds not simply intellectually, to the luminous brilliance of the poetry, but viscerally, from deep within the heart, soul and spirit—
surely the conscious reader remembers.
(And this, assuredly, is what the light teaches.)
I am greatly indebted to Professor D.M.R. Bentley, not only for proposing many of the original ideas for this essay (particularly Bergson‘s notion of the durée and Steiner’s views on language) but also for his considerable patience and encouragement in the publication of this paper.
Bentley, D.M.R. The Gay]Grey Moose: Essays on the Ecologies and Mythologies of Canadian Poetry 1690-1990. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1992.
Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Trans. Arthur Mitchell. New York: Modern Library, 1994.
——. Duration and Simultaneity: with reference to Einstein’s theory of relativity. Trans. Leon Jakobson. New York: Bobs-Merrill, 1922.
——. Matter and Memory. Trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. London: Allen and Unwin, 1929.
——. Time and Free Will. Trans. R.L. Pogson. London: Allen and Unwin, 1928.
Coser, Lewis A. "Introduction." On Collective Memory. 1-34.
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——. The Collective Memory. Trans. Francis J. Ditter, Jr. and Vida Yazfi Ditter. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.
Irwin-Zarecka, Iwona. Frames of Remembrance: The Dynamics of Collective Memory. New Brunswick (U.S.A.): Transaction, 1994.
Lipsitz, George. Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990.
Michaels, Anne. "Cleopatra’s Love." Poetry Canada Review 14.2 (1994): 14-5.
——. Miner’s Pond. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1991.
——. "Unseen Formations." Open Letter 8.4 (1992): 96-9.
Mitscherlich, Alexander, and Margaret Mitscherlich. The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behaviour. Trans. Beverley R. Placzek. New York: Grove, 1975.
Santner, Eric L. Stranded Objects: Mourning, Memory and Film in Postwar Germany. London: Cornell UP, 1990.
Steiner, George. Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1966. London: Faber and Faber, 1967.