Another Song I Know: Short Poems
By William Michaelian
Cosmopsis Books, $13.95 paper
By William Michaelian
Cosmopsis Books, $11.95 paper
“It might seem odd or come as a surprise,” William Michaelian writes in his Author’s Note to Another Song I Know, “but I never set out to write a short poem. I only set out to write the poem—the poem of the moment, the poem that shines light on the idea, situation, event, or lifetime from which that moment springs.”
In those two sentences, Michaelian gives us the bedrock truth of his collections of poems. Although he is speaking about his shorter poems, his other volume, Winter Poems, is equally pure and razor sharp, if employing a few more words than his shorter pieces.
By way of introduction, William Michaelian is a publishing phenomenon. In addition to his printed work, he is the author and president of what should be its own country in cyberspace, (http://williammichaelian.com/) a 1064 page depository of his fiction, essays, poetry, journals, discussions, interviews, and on-going dialogues with the literary world. And if that is not enough, he recently launched a new website, Recently Banned Literature, found at http://recently-banned-literature.blogspot.com/.
In his author photograph, Michaelian looks like a reincarnated Walt Whitman, which is fitting, since Whitman, too, self-published much of his own work in a number of editions of Leaves of Grass. But that is where the similarity ends. Michaelian’s work is less rambling than Whitman’s, more focused and sharp, cutting to the truth of emotion and human existence. His words are steeped in wisdom, a writer’s poet who seems to have lived a thousand years in his time. Many of the poems in Another Song I Know are distillation of moments, like scenes behind glass, word pictures that illuminate a range of responses in the reader. That is what makes them powerful: a moment in Michaelian’s life leads to a poem which cuts to the bone for the reader, almost like that familiar voice on the telephone in the middle of a dark night. These are poems to take comfort from, a source of resilience for the soul.
In the title poem, Michaelian writes: “August is another song I know / that reminds me of the burning bridge / I’m on. It says there’s no way home / but the places I’ve yet to go. / It says I am alone in a way that shows / how good life is, like sunlight on a table / when hope is somewhere near.”
August, burning its way to autumn, is part of what some would characterize as the season of youth—summer. But in the seeds of summer lie something deeper, growing older, realizing that life is about forward motion, and that we cannot let ourselves be pulled backward. The simplicity of Michaelian’s images make them more profound. The “burning bridge” reminds us to keep moving forward. Like Odysseus journeying home to Ithaca, the only way home is to keep going, keep searching.
What is startling is the line about being alone. Michaelian equates being alone with how good life is, “like sunlight on a table,” a clear, crystallized image, photographic in a way. And then there is hope nearby. Progressing alone on the journey means that there is more to explore, more to discover.
There are echoes of poetic heritage in Michaelian’s work. His style is not like Whitman’s, but his writing contains many elements of Transcendentalism, of Emerson and Thoreau.
The poem, “I Remember Other Things” discusses Emerson’s idea, influenced by a number of religious views and philosophies, of how things in nature never truly die. “When flowers / and leaves / adorn our / compost heap, / I remember / other things / we’ve left behind. / They’re buried deep, / but they never seem to die.” Although things physically die, they remain in our imaginations. We remember them as they were. They also remain literally, in that each dead and decaying thing fertilizes the next generation. Whitman wrote of this recycling, too. He famously saw himself in a blade of grass, and wrote that should we ever need him after he is gone, we should look under the soles of our feet.
The strength of this kind of poetry is in its ability to transcend the author’s life and go on to give us insight into our own lives. Michaelian excels at this. In his poem, “After The Storm,” he manages to address the resilience and power of human life through a lightning-scarred tree. “You see my blackened bough, / and wonder how the lightning failed to reach my roots. I tell you now, / it did not fail, the fire lives there still.” The majesty of survival, the trial by fire—this is what it means to be alive, to carry the scars of living proudly, as if to say, “we were here, and we endured.”
I cannot help thinking of Michaelian’s Armenian heritage, his ancestors who endured the fire of genocide and unspeakable atrocities. Although Michaelian does not identify himself as a uniquely Armenian writer, (he has published work in Armenian publications and been translated into the language), his work does contain the vein of melancholy so prevalent in the Armenian culture, its literature, art and music.
His second book, Winter Poems, is a lyrical cycling through of the winter months—November through January—and contains longer pieces, although still displaying the kind of concentrated imagery and wording of Another Song I Know.
The book begins with a wintry epigraph: “So much like now, it was cold the day I died: / cold but not unforgiven, / cold with beauty unrelenting, / cold with magic all around.” In winter, a season of death and silence, Michaelian still finds hope, magic, all around.
The poems take on a mystical quality as befits the season. In the poem, “So Begins December,” Michaelian writes: “There’s a conversation / in the next room. / I tiptoe in, find two cups / beside a window / I know was closed. / So begins December, / when even ghosts have bones. / I tiptoe out, the quiet talk resumes.”
Here, too, is the advice to the living, the life lesson for humanity, masquerading in the personification of December speaking to January. “My advice to you? / Take pride in what you do / and never follow suit; / your days are numbered; / be true to them.” From one month to another, from wise poet to a student, it is all beautiful in Michaelian’s dreams of winter.
And one justifies beauty and the gift of days by being true. As Thoreau wrote, "I went to the woods to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Michaelian’s work is the very breath of truth, and we can feel this truth in every line.
Poets these days face extinction. Many turn to teaching, technical writing, sorting letters at the post office, anything to make ends meet. Shelley wrote that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Not enough people read poetry outside of the Academy to make this true today. But Shelley also argued, in the same “Defence of Poetry,” that “Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought.” Such is the necessity of the poet and the poem.
In the distances we travel, William Michaelian’s poems can act as signposts, pauses in the struggle of daily living, a way of close reading the moments of our lives. His work shares with us his wisdom and insights, the poetic music of one soul speaking to another in a clear and ever-present language, teaching us the way forward across the burning bridge of the past, on the long journey home.