BOOK REVIEW: All We Saw by Anne Michaels

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Loss. Desire. Passion. Love. Death. All of these topics have been tackled in poetry for as long as it’s been written. You would think that there would be no more room for poems of the like. Think again.

Anne Michaels details these themes, and more, in her newest collection, All We Saw. The Canadian poet has a reputation to uphold: her fiction has won her an Orange and a Guardian Fiction Prize. Luckily, this latest collection doesn’t disappoint. At the core of All We Saw is an exploration of ‘what love makes us capable of, and incapable of’ and everything in between those two boundaries.

If you were a fan of Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey, as most of the world was, get your hands on a copy of this. The collection is divided into six sections, but each page could be read as its own standalone poem. This is one of those books to keep on your bedside table. On any given day, you can open up to a random page and pay attention to lines you failed to notice before.

‘They turn away with everything but their eyes’ (pg. 61)

Just as important as the words themselves is the way they are positioned. Much blank space is left on each page. Michaels manages to say a lot in few words, leaving us to fill in the blanks with our own experiences which, like the poet’s, are intensely personal.

In the first section, ‘Sea of Lanterns’, Michaels dampens the scene, literally evoking images of water, rain, and fish. She pulls you in like the tide would, accompanying you through the ebb and flow of her words. Her writing is prose-like, telling an anonymous story. We can’t be sure if the poems are autobiographical, but their ideas certainly ring familiar to our own lives.

‘The place between love and the dream of love’ (pg. 7)

My personal favourite is the second section, ‘Somewhere Night Is Falling’. Reminiscent of Anis Mogjani’s “Shake the Dust”, Michaels tiptoes between the abstract and specific, addressing everyone and no one at the same time. While the night is falling, ‘somewhere a man waits in a train station with the taste of coffee on his palate’, for example, while ‘somewhere a woman wakes in the night and knows no one will ever write a poem for her’. One minute your heart is warmed and the next it is shattered. While Michaels sometimes remains on the surface of the ‘night falling’, she carves beneath it, too, and explores what that night means to different people.

The poems are layered with contradictions. Michaels effortlessly pushes you in one direction, then another. ‘What one age settles, another shakes again,’ she writes, capturing the security of yesterday and the insecurity of tomorrow, and vice versa. One second ‘he was mistaken’ and the next ‘he was certain’. We are made to feel ‘as if we had, as if we had not’. I’d be lying if I said I understood every poem in its entirety. It’s dense with emotion, and this intensity can make it difficult to read at times. However, I like to think that that is the point. Michaels leaves blank space on purpose, for us to fill in ourselves. Our associations with the words matter more than the actual words on the page.

‘From the first moment you had only

we had only to

bend our heads as if reading

the same book open between us’ (pg. 74)

All We Saw is undoubtedly a collection of modern poetry. Expect abstract thoughts and ideas expressed without any real rhythm or rhyme scheme. While fans of Chaucer and Pushkin might not find much here, I’d argue that many contemporary readers will. There is a reason this sort of poetry has exploded in recent years: there is an audience for it. People like having their feelings validated, wanting to feel like they’re not alone in their emotions.

The sixth section mirrors the title of the collection, ‘All We Saw’. Throughout, Michaels refers to ‘you’, an unnamed other. Because of this anonymity, we are able to substitute that ‘you’ with whoever we feel fits. Reading the collection is a cathartic experience. The reader can release their bottled-up emotions along with the poet’s and let them float, and drown, with the ocean waves.

‘Not how we fall in love, but how we fail in love’ (pg. 68)

Anne Michaels’ new poetry collection has us see it all and miss it all, remember and forget. What it doesn’t do, however, is stop us from feeling. This book will either make you want to burn your old photographs or frame them. You might feel compelled to call someone up or scribble them a note. You could rummage through your memory box and lose yourself in the past or take a confident step into the future. Or you could do everything at once.


Anne Michaels


Anne Michaels was born in Toronto in 1958. She was educated at Toronto University where she continues to teach as an adjunct professor of creative writing. Her first volume of poems, The Weight of Oranges, was published to great acclaim in 1986 when it won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the Americas. Fugitive Pieces, her first novel, has been published in over thirty countries and has won many international awards, including both the Orange Prize and the Guardian Fiction Award when it was published in 1997. Anne Michaels has published two other books of poetry, the award-winning Miner’s Pond and Skin Divers. Her latest novel is The Winter Vault.
All We Saw was published by published by Bloomsbury on 5th October 2017
You can purchase a copy of All We Saw from FoylesWaterstones, or The Book Depository:




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Review by Alice Kouzmenko


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