What’s in a Hyphen – Poet Anne Michaels Tells Us

Dates on a gravestone. And the heartbreaking hyphen that joins them.

Later, What I Saw There – After Reading
Anne Michael’s ‘All WE SAW’

for Anne Michaels

Sometimes, a skipping stone on water,
my eye skips off pages of poems and does not enter
in. Sometimes,  a mistake then,
I shut the book.
Say it’s too hard. But
sometimes, later, I go back and force
my eyes to drown down there –
the dark word-water, waiting.

Sometimes, I find enough air there
to move lungs and hurt
and wonder, if,
this time, I might
choose to heal,


Richard Osler, unpublished, 2017

from Bison

the stillness between silence
and muteness

the moment desire forcibly
is renamed

the precise space between
those two words.

Anne Michaels, from WHAT WE SAW, McClelland & Stewart, 2017

What was meant to be a first prose sentence about the latest poetry collection by Canadian author Anne Michaels, turned into a poem! My first attempt to read her collection failed. Then I went back in faced it – her searing collection, her epistolary book of poems of loss and grief, saying good bye and letting go. One of the most memorable poetry collections I read in 2017. And I read a lot!

I first mentioned this collection in a tribute to John Berger (1926-2017) I posted a few days ago. Berger is one of the seven people listed in the acknowledgements, there with a beginning  (birth) date, a hyphen, and an end (death) date. The finality of that. And how Michaels turns that harmless? little hyphen into something more. In the poem There Was A Distant Sound (full poem below) the last two lines ask: was it the tiny line that shows the path/ between the first date and the last. And then a poem that opens hyphen to its further possibilities as a metaphor:


a single stitch
the life entire

broken path

long vowel

love’s dare
love’s repair

love’s patience
love’s acquiescence
love’s indignation
love’s silence

in the last months
you looked at the sea
the pencil’s line
the poem’s line
the typewriter ribbon worn through
on Greene Street

seam between

the dash at the end of phrase, meaning
not yet, meaning

Anne Michaels from ALL WE SAW, McClelland & Stewart, 2017


Ah, the grief in that last stanza. How different the job of the hyphen when not working between the finality of two dates. How different when it does the work of a dash, a pause, meaning as Michaels says to/continue. And this book how it becomes a poetic hyphen, filling in her heart space between the two unyielding dates.  The iron-bar clank of that last one. Or, to say it differently, a book end that looks and feels like a cemetery stone.

Last words to Michaels:


was it the sea turning around
was it a soul seeking shelter
in the longing of another

was it the breaking of a vow
was it a bird leaving the branch
was it a blessed second chance

was it an arm across a shoulder
was it the moon across the water
was it you my dear lost father

was it a shadow across the snow
was it the whiteness of a page
was it a word that will not fade

was it sunlight across a bed
was it darkness calling for morning
was it a silent understanding

was it the sky growing coldeer
was it a heart making room
for the one who has not come

was it love inside a lie
was it a child growing older
was it your dreaming breath against my skin

was it the tiny line that shows the path
between the first date and the last

Anne Michaels, ibid

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