University of Nebraska Press
  • “Every Moment Is Two Moments”Witnessing and the Poetics of Trauma in Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels

History and memory share events; that is, they share time and space. Every moment is two moments.

—Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces

The speech of the witness bears witness to a time in which human beings did not yet speak; and so the testimony of the witness attests to a time in which they were not yet human.

—Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz

More than love or loss or the price of survival, Fugitive Pieces is a novel about witnessing.1 Anne Michaels’s great achievement is not so much the beautiful, sparse, and haunting lyricism of her text, but rather its gestures of deferral, the quiet force of its testimonial fragments, and her complex layering of relations between subjectivity and acts of writing. Her response to the impossible task of writing the Holocaust is to find in the interplay of structure and language an affectivity that reaches beyond the failure of words. Situated in the midst of paradox, alive with the tensions between metaphor and reality, poetry and disaster, Michaels’s novel does more than articulate the indistinct and undecidable. It makes them productive forces for testimony and reveals something of the depth of terrible [End Page 81] trauma, even as it enacts the impossibility of ever representing its totality. Thus the poet Jakob Beer grapples with the capacity of literary language to keep alive the memory of his sister who disappeared in the Holocaust—her loss occurs not only in the event itself but in the resistance of language to its articulation. So too his biographer Ben’s desire to make sense of the silences in his own family’s Holocaust experience through Jakob’s poetry and life story. Through the narrative structure and events, through the literary style, and in the many reflections on words, poetry, memory, and history that populate the text, Fugitive Pieces attempts a testimonial semblance, bearing witness to catastrophe in the very gesture of its concealment. This gesture occurs not only in the play of language within the text but in the affective charge it produces.

This evocation of trauma—because it is evocation, not representation—depends on the novel’s openness, its often radically undecidable language and structure. Perhaps, too, this openness is why the work has occasioned such broad interpretation and inspiration. Critics have used the novel as a departure point for art criticism, to reconceive notions of national security, to reimagine adoption, and even to propose a reflexive and relational understanding of how social science researchers construct knowledge.2 In more direct relation to its writing of the Shoah and the survivor experience, a number of thoughtful examinations have been written on the novel’s use of elegy and the pastoral, its interrogation of masculinity and Shoah representation, its embodiment of what Marianne Hirsch has called “postmemory,” its use of place, and its dialogic relation to trauma theory.3 The novel is not without its critics, however. Among the most incisive charges is Meira Cook’s argument that its “habitual mode of high lyricism” aestheticizes the Holocaust.4 While this criticism seems at first glance to have some weight, it does not give sufficient attention to the subtleties of Michaels’s language or her desire to push figural language to its limits, as in the case of Jakob’s reflections on Nazi language and the role of the poet as witness. Indeed, some of the most productive insights into Michaels’s novel can be obtained by reading against the grain of such critiques to reveal aspects of the novel that might otherwise remain obscured.

As I hope to show, Fugitive Pieces is itself a kind of theorizing on the poetics of trauma. By poetics of trauma, I do not mean poetry as such, but [End Page 82] rather the deployment of lyric literary language, primarily in prose in this case but also, at times, in the poetry of one of its protagonists, Jakob Beer. I begin by considering how meanings echo across space and time within the text. I then turn to the novel’s archaeologies of trauma before focusing on its most fundamental gesture: bearing witness to trauma through semblance.

Echoes across Time and Space

First there is the ambiguous dedication: “For J.” The short prologue begins with the “countless manuscripts” of World War Two that were “deliberately hidden—buried in back gardens, tucked into walls and under floors—by those who did not live to retrieve them.” Still others are “concealed in memory, neither written nor spoken.” Only then does the reader learn that the poet Jakob Beer is dead, struck by a car in Athens, and survived by his wife for just two days. “Shortly before his death, Beer had begun to write his memoirs” (fp, 1). What follows is a novel in two parts, a complex work of lyric fiction, poetic both in its language and in the fragmentary, recursive structure of its narrative.

“Time is a blind guide” begins the narrative proper. “Bog-boy, I surfaced into the miry streets of the drowned city.” Seven-year-old Jakob Beer rises from the mud “like Tollund Man, Grauballe Man.” He carries with him the “afterbirth of dirt” (fp, 5). He rises from the mud into the arms of Athos, the Greek geologist and archaeologist who will adopt and raise him. “For a moment he thought I was one of Biskupin’s lost souls, or perhaps the boy in the story, who digs a hole so deep he emerges on the other side of the world” (fp, 5–6). Then time folds back on itself; Jakob the poet—the older man whose memoir this is—speaks: “Biskupin had been carefully excavated for almost a decade. Archaeologists gently continued to remove Stone and Iron Age relics from soft pockets of peat.” Time is thrust back, past his disappearance into mud and then, hurtling forward, beyond the moment of his rebirth. “When the soldiers arrived they examined the perfectly preserved clay bowls; they held the glass beads, the bronze and amber bracelets, before smashing them on the floor. … Then the soldiers buried Biskupin in the sand” (fp, 6). Biskupin, exactly the site of Nazi failure—the failure to pervert history—and at once the site of history’s erasure. Fittingly, it also becomes the site of rebirth into the arms of Athos, geologist, archaeologist, and paleobotanist. Thus places and professions [End Page 83] are layered themes of history and its meaning, as well as metaphors of burial and birth and archaeology.

Again, time is enfolded. “My sister had long outgrown the hiding place” but “I was still small enough to vanish behind the wallpaper in the cupboard.” Again, the poet-memoirist’s temporal distance asserts itself. “Since those minutes inside the wall, I’ve imagined that the dead lose every sense except hearing” (fp, 6). Then the moment returns, but in a time before the beginning of the novel. “The burst door. Wood ripped from hinges, cracking like ice under the shouts. Noises never heard before, torn from my father’s mouth. Then silence.” Here, memory can be communicated only in fragmentary language: “My mother had been sewing a button on my shirt. She kept her buttons in a chipped saucer. I heard the rim of the saucer in circles on the floor. I heard the spray of buttons, little while teeth.” The bodies of his mother and father are there, but alien: “my mother’s face was not her own” and his father “two shapes in the flesh-heap, his hands” (fp, 7). Jakob runs into the forest, slips into a river, buries himself in the soft dirt, face hidden with leaves. “Then I felt the worst shame of my life: I was pierced with hunger. And suddenly I realized, my throat aching without sound—Bella” (fp, 9). His sister, too big for the hiding place. No glimpse of her body. “I couldn’t remember hearing Bella at all. Filled with her silence, I had no choice but to imagine her face” (fp, 10). He spends days walking, nights buried in dirt. And then it strikes him: “I know, suddenly, my sister is dead. At this precise moment, Bella becomes flooded ground. A body of water pulling under the moon” (fp, 12). The next moment of narration is his emergence, his rush into Athos’s arms, where he “screamed into the silence the only phrase I knew in more than one language, I screamed it in Polish and German and Yiddish, thumping my fists into my own chest: dirty Jew, dirty Jew, dirty Jew” (fp, 12–13). When Athos at last speaks, his words of comfort trail off into ellipses.

Everything is contained in these first pages. Or not quite—the first notes of everything, struck once but already resonating, with shifting tone, changing in depth and intensity. At work here is affect, an intensity of relationality, a force or capacity of connection between things. In this instance, affect occurs not simply between the characters of the text but in the experience of reading—as I will show, something crucial is produced in the constellation of reader, text, and the act of reading itself.5 Water and [End Page 84] dirt, surfacing and drowning—motifs that will recur, shifted and changed, throughout the text. Loss and grief, the long shock in which Jakob precisely does not know that his sister is gone—the latency of the traumatic event described by Cathy Caruth.6 Tensions between presence and absence, between destruction and creation, between digging into the ground and rising from it. Here, too, are themes that shape not only the novel but this essay’s delving into it: time and space, speech and silence, archaeology and geology, history and memory. Perhaps most interesting is the fragmentary structure, the way it repeats, curls back on itself, folds time. Its willingness to reside exactly in the moment—“[t]he burst door”—even as the poet-memoirist asserts his distance, his knowingness. Michaels’s lyricism almost overwhelms the narrative and there is shock in having such horrific experiences rendered into beautiful prose. But this is lyricism cut through with brutality: “flesh-heap,” “dirty Jew,” “my sister is dead.” What follows in the novel is a kind of rising, pulsating echo, a variation on music begun in these first pages.

If “The Drowned City,” this first chapter, sets down the first sedimentary layers of trauma, then these are immediately complicated in the following chapter, “The Stone-Carriers.” On the Greek island of Zakynthos, Athos hides Jakob through the Italian and German occupations, teaching him English and Greek even as slow starvation grips them. Athos’s lessons on geology, poetry, paleontology, and archaeology slide frequently into ellipses, gesturing toward the irrecoverable gap between the world and language, or the capacity of any theory—for what are such disciplined lenses through which to view the world if not theory?—ever fully to grasp the real. But Jakob learns in precise detail those specificities that Athos teaches: the Flemish botanist Clusius, Vikings rowing on Russian rivers, the travels of salt traders, the fossils of fish found on mountaintops. History and memory echo across time, and like all echoes, they distort. Jakob seeks the same details within his own memories but exactness eludes him. “I tried to remember ordinary details, the sheet music beside Bella’s bed, her dresses. … But in nightmares the real picture wouldn’t hold still long enough for me to look, everything melting. Or I remembered the name of a classmate but not his face. A piece of clothing but not its color.” And yet while events might be blurred and without meaning, the cost for Jakob is not. “When I woke, my anguish was specific: the possibility that it [End Page 85] was as painful for them to be remembered as it was for me to remember them; that I was haunting my parents and Bella with my calling, startling them awake in their black beds” (fp, 25). This elusive yet painful specificity has its surprising inverse: “We can’t stop the small accident, the tiny detail that conspires into fate: the extra moment you run back for something forgotten, a moment that saves you from an accident—or causes one. But we can assert the largest order, the large human values daily, the only order large enough to see” (fp, 22). Or perhaps the grand sweep of history is readily perceived, while the exact moments that compose it are always slipping from one’s grasp.

What also emerges here is the complexity of the human experience of time. Embodied time is strangely elusive, geological time graspable. “To go back a year or two was impossible, absurd. To go back millennia—ah! that was … nothing” (fp, 30). There is an almost desperate effort to make sense of the present against the vastness of time. “The present, like a landscape, is only a small part of a mysterious narrative. A narrative of catastrophe and slow accumulation” (fp, 48). Jakob—“Even now, half a century later, writing this on a different Greek island” (fp, 18)—desperately seeks some way of making sense of this radical disjuncture between immense breadth and his own lived time: “Grief requires time. If a chip of stone radiates its self, its breath, so long, how stubborn might be the soul. If sound waves carry to infinity, where are their screams now? I imagine them somewhere in the galaxy, moving forever towards the psalms” (fp, 54). But threaded into Jakob’s reflections on time is absence. “The shadow past is shaped by everything that never happened. Invisible, it melts the present like rain through karst. A biography of longing” (fp, 17). Here there is a crucial tension: a shadow past shaped by what has not occurred, yet present in its very absence, its presence in the body that yearns. Hidden, too, among all this folded time is its relation to beauty, which could be read as an imperative of the novel, an instruction to the reader. “Find a way to make beauty necessary; find a way to make necessity beautiful” (fp, 44). An impossible injunction, perhaps, but one that articulates the ethical imperative behind the doubling movements of the text.

Where the most powerful echoes reside, however, is in the relation between Jakob’s narrative and the shorter, second part of the novel. “While the longer initial section of Michaels’s novel focuses on a child survivor [End Page 86] [Ben], part 2 employs a child of survivors to narrate a revision of Jacob’s trajectory that is signaled formally through the recycling of chapter titles.”7 This shift—the insertion of the “of” between child and survivor—is characteristic of the echoing that occurs in the novel. These are not parallels, as a number of commentators name them. To run parallel is to follow the same trajectory at a specific remove; what Fugitive Pieces does is radically different: fragments of sediment that fall and settle only to be swept up by water, broken into further fragments, compressed into new forms, lost to return hardly recognizable or bob to the surface exactly as they always were. For Ben, “The Drowned City” is Toronto—the city to which Jakob and Athos emigrate. What is drowned is not ancient ruins but his childhood home on the city’s Humber River. “If you turn around to look at the muddy escarpment, or simply look down at your feet, you’ll begin to notice the Humber’s distinctive sediment, laid down in October 1954.” A nascent archaeologist, prefiguring his later task of uncovering of Jakob’s journals, Ben catalogs objects found in the bank where houses stood. “Hidden beneath the grass, all around you, the wide, silent park is studded with cutlery” (fp, 202). Just as the objects of his childhood home are buried, so too is his family’s story: “There was no energy of narrative in my family, not even the fervor of an elegy” (fp, 204). Only after his parents’ death does he learn from his wife, in whom he has confided, that he lost two older siblings in the camps. Part elegy to Jakob part attempt to make sense of the absences present in his own history, Ben’s narrative echoes Jakob’s in multiple ways: Jakob is buried as a child, Ben’s childhood home is buried; Jakob’s parents are killed by Nazis, Ben’s parents’ story is truncated by the camps; Jakob’s sibling disappeared, Ben doesn’t know he had siblings; Jakob walks Toronto to uncover its ancient roots, Ben for “the silent drama of abandonment” (fp, 228); Jakob’s wife doesn’t understand him, Ben’s understands too much; Jakob writes poetry, Ben writes about weather.

However, Jakob’s story is not Ben’s, nor the reverse. Yet their relation goes beyond the overt dynamics of the plot—that Ben meets Jakob at a party and is then tasked, after his death, with traveling to the poet’s home on the island of Idrha to find his journals. Nor is it confined to the repetition of motifs and metaphors or life events. Nor is it simply that the structures of their trauma share certain qualities—although this is an important aspect of the text. In the echoes across space and time that occur between the two [End Page 87] narratives, what matters is not simply the walls between which meaning bounces—the poles between which electricity sparks—but exactly the in-between itself. This in-between, constituted not by one wall or another nor by the echo alone but by the whole happening, is where what Michaels’s text, above anything else, seeks to radically evoke that which can only be evoked—become real—in the act of reading. This is affect, “found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passage or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves.”8

Archaeologies of Trauma

Merle Williams and Stefan Polatinsky note that Fugitive Pieces “offers an apt illustrative instance of the complexities entailed in seeking to imagine the traumatic” and that the “structure of the text is, moreover, recursive and permeated by ghostly manifestations, playing out Cathy Caruth’s model of traumatic repetition.”9 But Michaels’s novel has also been criticized for not giving sufficient weight to the horror of the Shoah, for aestheticizing its brutality. Cook argues that Michaels’s intention is “to metaphorize history, memory, and narrative precisely in order to challenge the literal, to articulate catastrophe in language that is poetic and densely allusive.” The problem, however, is that her “lush, poetic discourse jars uneasily with the horrors she is narrating” even as “it provides a way of thinking about metaphor and metonymy as figurative devices that alternatively reveal and conceal the materiality of the event.”10 Cook is most troubled by the description of the Jews of Zakynthos who hide their valuables and “slip into the hills, where they wait like coral; half flesh, half stone” (fp, 40). “Far from remaining caught in an Ovidian state of metamorphosis,” Cook writes, “the Jews of Zakynthos were dispersed, systematically hunted, and summarily slaughtered, and in metaphorizing their fate Michaels unwittingly conceals the decidedly unpoetic nature of genocide.”11 What Cook misses here is history: the Jews of Zakynthos were not slaughtered but saved thanks to both the intervention of Archbishop Chrysostomos and their own quick action.12 Of course, this problem of facticity does not dismiss Cook’s broader point, that when “brutality, love-making, and the pragmatism of daily living are all described in Michaels’s habitual mode [End Page 88] of high lyricism, a prevailing flatness results.”13 But as Williams and Polatinsky note, responses such as this “seem to overlook shaping aspects of Michaels’s linguistic creativity, especially the subtly reflective subtext which traces out the contours of her overt narrative.”14 For Williams and Polatinsky, this subtext is a Levinasian ethics of faciality. I want to suggest something different, which is nonetheless founded in Cook’s recognition of “the paradox that, once narrated, the horror or obscenity is no longer either horrifying or obscene: instead it is essentially narratable, representable.”15 What Cook does not recognize is that this paradox depends on representation as the mode of expression. If Fugitive Pieces generates something subtly yet crucially different, which is to say affective intensity, then perhaps what is revealed is a failure of representation and the necessity of gesturing beyond the limits of language.

“The fundamental metaphor in Fugitive Pieces,” argues Donna Coffey, “is layers that are uncovered in an archaeological excavation of time and place.”16 Athos digs at Biskupin, Jakob uncovers fragments of his own trauma, Ben excavates Jakob’s past. Archaeology is thus also the conceptual underpinning of the text’s evocation of trauma, but it is the necessary uncertainty of this process—archaeology’s inexact science, its unavoidable conjecture—that is particularly revealing. Ben promises to “excavate gently” Jakob’s home on Idrha, and in his elegiac mode he writes, “I would spend weeks inside your house, an archaeologist examining one square inch at a time” (fp, 261). Yet despite his careful examination, as Marita Grimwood shows, Ben fails to understand the significance or misconstrues the meaning of objects: a plate of buttons as a memorial to Jakob’s mother; Athos’s pocket watch; Pliny’s Natural History not “obviously mislaid” on the kitchen bench but part of Jakob’s own excavation of memory, as on Zakynthos Pliny provided recipes that helped Jakob and Athos survive the war (fp, 265). Grimwood suggests that such misreading “signals him as a failed reader, an over-interpreter,” and to an extent this may be true.17 But what is also signaled is the elusiveness of the past, its specificity of meaning. Or, as Ben puts it, “[t]he importance not of what’s extant, but of what’s disappeared” (fp, 222). What is significant here is that Grimwood has recognized these failures of interpretation: through such recognition, past meanings come to be recognized precisely in their disappearance, in their refusal to be readily excavated. It is only the reader who [End Page 89] holds the capacity to know this and who can be affected by that knowing.

Ben is no stranger to archaeology. There is his study of the Humber flood, but more significantly, his excavation of his parents’ home after their deaths and his discovery, through an old photograph, that he had an older brother and sister who died in the camps. “Most discover absence for themselves; trees are ripped out and sorrow floods the clearing. Then we know what we loved. But I was born into absence” (fp, 233). What cuts him is not the loss of his siblings per se but rather the sudden shock of the depth of what he does not know. “How is it possible I never knew, never guessed?” (fp, 251). Others have ably discussed the complexity of Ben’s relationship with both his wife, Naomi, and with Jakob—what I want to bring into focus is this falling short of knowledge, the knowledge obtained by archaeology.18 This failure of systematic knowledge is repeated in Ben’s search for Jakob’s memoirs. Their uncovering occurs only after Petra, the young American woman with whom he has a short-lived affair, searches the house while Ben sleeps: “I hadn’t realized the extent of Petra’s rampage. In the space of perhaps an hour, she had pillaged every room” (fp, 283). Feeling violated, he explodes at Petra and, after she has fled, works diligently to repair the damage. Yet this pillaging is what lets him find the notebooks: “Not in a stack abandoned by Petra, but merely revealed by the space on the shelf beside them” (fp, 284). Thus the sediment is uncovered not by too much caution but by an excess of wildness.

If Ben is the most literal of archaeologists, then Jakob is the most literary. For Jakob, archaeology is an act of creation: writing poetry. His first collection is even tilted Groundwork. There is much to be said about Jakob’s writing and its relation to history and trauma, but I want first to draw attention to the layers of writing that an archaeology of the novel might excavate. Almost everyone in Fugitive Pieces works with words. Jakob the poet, Athos the geologist and archaeologist, Ben the writer on weather and biography and war. Jakob’s first wife, Alex, revels in word games and argument, his second wife, Michaela, is a voracious reader, his friend Maurice is an academic and museum curator. Ben’s wife, Naomi, is an editor, obsessed with the small details of things. Only Ben’s parents, of the significant characters, are not enamored with words and this is the radical absence from which Ben’s own trauma is drawn. Words and acts of writing, however, take many forms, from Athos’s testament to Nazism’s assault on [End Page 90] history, Bearing False Witness, to Alex’s palindromes. More significant is Michaels’s layering of the texts that compose the narrative. Jakob’s memoir is literally discovered by Ben’s narrative; lines from his poems only appear, at least clearly delineated as such, within Ben’s words. Even the short prologue must be read as contained within this web of textual relations: only in Ben’s narrative does the reader begin to learn that this might be the person who has found and framed Jakob’s memoir.

Among this layering of texts, each of which seeks in its incomplete way to engage with the knowing and not knowing of trauma, something happens. The fragmentary narratives, with their aporias, folded time, and repetition, resonate between their many layers. In doing this, Michaels’s novel gestures toward—but, crucially, does not state—the impossibility of representing trauma in its fullness, not simply within the individual text but within any network of texts. Yet her writing is important in thinking about the very practice of writing trauma because it proposes that the reader can apprehend something of the depth, shape, and substance of terrible trauma in the interplay of incomplete attempts to write it. Not in words themselves, but between and beyond them.

Semblance and the Witness

This is how Jakob articulates his theory of witnessing: “To remain with the dead is to abandon them.” So it is that Bella “whispers not for me join her, but so that, when I’m close enough, she can push me back into the world” (fp, 170). To witness, then, is to be beside both the dead and the living. For Giorgio Agamben, testimony always resides in something like this paradox: “The authority of the witness consists in his capacity to speak solely in the name of an incapacity to speak—that is, in his or her being a subject.”19 The subject must be understood here in “the two apparently opposed senses of this phrase: to be subjected and to be sovereign.”20 No surprise, then, that “[t]he subject of testimony is constitutively fractured; it has no other consistency than disjunction and dislocation—and yet it is nevertheless irreducible to them.”21 This irreducibility is at the heart of the paradox of testimony, that it must take place in a zone of indistinction: “Testimony takes place in the non-place of articulation.”22

What is the nonplace of articulation if not the between-ness with which Fugitive Pieces resonates? Articulated precisely by the articulation [End Page 91] of something else. Given over to gesture, not representation. Or, as Agamben writes in one of his more poignant phrases, “the remnants of Auschwitz—the witnesses—are neither the dead nor the survivors, neither the drowned nor the saved. They are what remain between them.”23 What remains between, if tentatively brought to bear on Michaels’s novel, is the affective intensity between echoing fragments of text and the reader. “Precisely because testimony is the relation between a possibility of speech and its taking place, it can exist only through a relation to an impossibility of speech—that is, only as contingency, as a capacity not to be.”24 Or, as Agamben elaborates, “The subject is thus the possibility that language does not exist, does not take place—or, better that it takes place only through its possibility of not being, its contingency.”25 This tension between speaking and not, this relational aspect of testimony, demands some further consideration of what, precisely, occurs at the level of subjectivity and language.

Even as a young boy, Jakob “knew the power of language to destroy, to omit, to obliterate” (fp, 79). Nowhere is this clearer than in his first spoken words: “dirty Jew, dirty Jew, dirty Jew” (fp, 13). Here, Susan Gubar states, “language has become one of the casualties of the disaster, for Jacob names himself in a libel circulated to exterminate him; his self-definition proves that the sole terms at his disposal have been poisoned by the lethal culture that classified and thereby attempted to eradicate him.”26 Verbal language in scripted or spoken form is always at the center of trauma, paired with the event of its occurrence by its failure to fully articulate what has occurred. On his move to Toronto, Jakob instinctively feels that “English could protect me; an alphabet without memory” (fp, 101). Its otherness from his history offers some salvation and, walking the city with Athos, he revels in playful learning (fp, 100). But for all the hope offered by English, Jakob cannot speak aloud what happened to him—only once he begins to write poetry can he begin to bring trauma and words closer together. Thus literary language offers something that other verbal language does not: the capacity for an aesthetic engagement with trauma that allows it to be evoked without being directly recounted as such. By contrast, Jakob’s failed marriage cautions against the playfulness of language, especially spoken word games. His wife, Alex, is “a sword-swallower, a fire-eater. In her mouth English was dangerous and alive, edgy and hot” (fp, [End Page 92] 132). She plays with palindromes, refuses direct descriptions, and argues politics with no relation to the real. It is as if Jakob has taken a wrong turn into language: Bella haunts him even more, the radical absence at the heart of his experience of the world—her gone-ness—opens below the playfully self-referential textuality embodied by the palindrome. Yet this tension between the play of language and lived absence—“Bella, who is nowhere to be found, is looking for me” (fp, 126)—confronts Jakob with the uncertainty of knowing: “I was focused on that historical split second: the tableau of the haunting trinity—perpetrator, victim, witness” (fp, 140). This historical split second is, for Jakob, illusory. Something that might be fixed for an instant, but as soon as it is grasped becomes again indistinct. This is Agamben’s paradox: the productive within the undecidable.

Undecidability is not so much a theme of the novel as constitutive of its language and structure. There is the dedication that begins the novel: “For J.” For which J? Jakob? Someone in Michaels’s life? Or could it be “like the ‘J’ stamped on a passport,” which holds “the power of life or death” (fp, 207)? Yet whether this dedication belongs to Ben, the imagined author, or to Michaels herself or to both is outside knowing. Recall Jakob’s incantation: “Every moment is two moments.” Or his naming of an imagined child: “If she’s a girl: Bella. If he’s a boy: Bela” (fp, 279). This difference of a letter—one that is only read, not heard—echoes the potentialities of meaning that proliferate within the text. That “every moment is two moments” comes to constitute the language of the novel itself. “Every day before supper I walked to the edge of the cliff and back again” (fp, 159). A seemingly simple sentence from Jakob’s account of writing Groundwork—but look closer. Charged with the indistinction that suffuses the text, does Jakob write literally or metaphorically? Does he walk to a precipice of history? Of trauma? Within himself? Or is this simply a description of his late afternoon strolls? Maybe it is both: two moments.

It is perhaps tempting to read here a destabilization of meaning, a retreat into poststructural textuality, but there is something else at work. “While the German language annihilated metaphor,” writes Jakob, “turning humans into objects, physicists turned matter into energy. The step from language/formula to fact: denotation to detonation” (fp, 143). What Michaels does is not so much restore metaphor to a place of innocence but reimagine its centrality to the paradox of trauma: it’s knowing and [End Page 93] not knowing. “Destruction doesn’t create a vacuum, it simply transforms presence into absence” (fp, 161). It is this moment of transformation, that ungraspable yet utterly existent moment in which presence becomes absence—or, perhaps, absence becomes presence—that Fugitive Pieces tries, however incompletely, to render into being. Or, more precisely, into a becoming that resides between the resonances and echoes of the text and the affective engagement of the reader.

Before turning specifically to what this might mean for witnessing, I want to consider the embodied relation of language to traumatic history. This becomes most explicit during Jakob’s long consideration of history at the center of the novel. “History is a poisoned well,” says Jakob, “seeping into the groundwater.” In this dark vision, history presents a very real threat to the future. “Every recorded event is a brick of potential, of precedent, thrown into the future. Eventually the idea will hit someone in the back of the head. This is the duplicity of history: an idea recorded will become an idea resurrected” (fp, 161). Yet this does not mean that one should turn a blind eye to the past or not record catastrophe, since “nothing erases the immoral act” (fp, 160). For Jakob, history—and in particular, of course, the Shoah—is inseparable from trauma. Thus it is that his meditations on history are interspersed with remembered words of Bella’s—“If I use my second finger instead, I’ll be ready for the middle voice in the next bar—” (fp, 162)—that are always cut off midsentence, her absence always present even in her speaking. This is what he recognizes as the “bond of memory and history when they share space and time” (fp, 161). Faced with the amorality of history on the one hand and the uncertain yet ethical imperative of memory on the other, what Jakob calls for is witnessing:

The event is meaningful only if the coordination of time and place is witnessed. Witnessed by those who lived near the incinerators, within the radius of smell. By those who lived outside a camp fence, or stood outside the chamber doors. By those who stepped a few feet to the right on the station platform. By those who were born a generation after.

(fp, 162)

Which brings him to the problem that Agamben, Primo Levi, Felman and Laub, and so many others have articulated in relation to the Shoah: who [End Page 94] bears witness to the inside of the crematorium? To the living husks of the camps? To utter absence? To the disappeared Bella?

For the poet, of course, witnessing is a question of language, but language itself has also been a site of violence. “Nazi policy was beyond racism,” writes Jakob, “it was anti-matter, for Jews were not considered human.” This occurs as an act of language. “Non-Aryans were never to be referred to as humans, but as ‘figuren,’ ‘stücke’—‘dolls,’ ‘wood,’ ‘merchandise,’ ‘rags.’ Humans were not being gassed, only ‘figuren,’ so ethics weren’t being violated” (fp, 165). No wonder, then, that Ben describes his parents as being without “refuge from the blinding potency of things,” all of which “had been retrieved from, an impossibility—both the inorganic and the organic—shoes and socks, their own flesh. It was all as one” (fp, 205). This astonishment at object-ness seems born of experiencing the Nazi’s desire to make humans inhuman, to turn subjects to objects. What, for Jakob, stands in defiance of this is the sheer fact of the body: “When they opened the doors, the bodies were always in the same position. Compressed, against one wall, a pyramid of flesh. Still hope. The climb to air, to the last disappearing pocket of breath near the ceiling. The terrifying hope of human cells.” For Jakob, then, there is something within the human that no de-subjectification can ever vanquish: “The bare autonomic faith of the body.” In “that utmost degradation, in that twisted reef, is the most obscene testament of grace.” Far from retreating into lyricism or obscuring horror, Jakob’s poetry is a kind of philosophy, chosen “over the brutalism of fact” (fp, 168). Bearing witness is demanded by that terrifying hope of human cells; it is a bodily necessity for Jakob and for the absent past: “Bella, my brokenness has kept you broken” (fp, 169).

In a short 2009 reflection on Fugitive Pieces, Michaels notes that all writers of the Shoah have “grappled, futilely, with this knot: the impossibility of its telling.” Despite the immense extent of research and analysis, this history “will, in a fundamental way, never yield its incomprehensibility: the magnitude, quality, and profundity of its horror.”27 Her novel, then, is a response to this conundrum: a poetics of trauma that takes as its central subject the impossibility of a telling that nevertheless must be told. Indeed, the novel’s lyricism “is not a denial of the horrors of the Shoah so much as a lament or elegy with abiding hollowness at its core, the starkly outlined space of horror and loss.”28 Or, as Gubar suggests, if “the [End Page 95] fugitive pieces of a subjectivity based on empathic identification can only be fleetingly experienced … then the sounds of intimate voices that stop and start in fragmentary bits and parts may be best suited for such an undertaking.”29 If, as I have contended, Fugitive Pieces is charged with affect by echoes between moments, resonances of metaphor and event, then its reimagining of what constitutes the act of witness is contained precisely in the between-ness with which the text is charged.

It is not simply that fragmentation expresses the traumatic but that the novel proposes a poetics of trauma that gives shape to incomprehensibility. It does so not through representation but through what Brian Massumi calls semblance. “Semblances of a certain artistic kind make gestures of revealing a content that lies beneath their surface. They reveal that depth in the very gesture of veiling it.”30 This is where the tension between lyric language and traumatic event generates an intensity of experience for the reader. Jakob’s poetry, his memoir, Ben’s resonant response to both are witness not only to terrible trauma—Bella gone, Jakob’s parents dead, the survivor aftermath with which Ben lives—but to the impossibility of its ever being told. But, crucially, the novel’s continual gesturing beyond language, beyond fixity, beyond the page, means that it is always already revealing the impossible depths below traumatic surfaces. “A semblance is a form of inclusion of what exceeds the artifact’s actuality.”31 Layers of past and present and the resonance between them, the novel’s archaeologies, fold time and place together to gesture at that which can never be represented.

Semblance “makes perceptually felt” the difference “between sensuous experience and non-sensuous reality.”32 It is that glimpse of a fragment of an event that nonetheless indicates its trajectory, the shape of its wholeness. This depends precisely on what is not told. Which is to say, Fugitive Pieces is a semblance of witnessing the Shoah precisely because it does not attempt to unknot the impossibility of such a telling but rather reveals some small piece of the vectors and contour of the Shoah’s catastrophic trauma. In an essay published while she was working on the novel, Michaels writes that “the senses bypass language: the ambush of a scent or weather, but language also jump starts the senses—sound or image sends us spiraling into memory or association.”33 Her words are revealing. Fugitive Pieces comes into being only as witness in the act of reading. Its semblance of witnessing depends on that affective response in the reader. This [End Page 96] is why Michaels’s subject resembles Agamben’s: “a field of forces always already traversed by the incandescent and historically determined currents of potentiality and impotentiality, of being able not to be and not being able not to be.”34 Her achievement is a poetics of trauma that embraces that paradox of being and not, knowing and not, and finds in it not a nonplace from which nothing but a cry escapes but rather an aesthetics charged with political potential.

In her semblance of witnessing, Michaels makes incomprehensibility appear. Not as comprehensible, but as absence, that is, in its force, presence. “The closest we come to knowing the location of what’s unknown is when it melts through the map like a watermark,” writes Jakob, “a stain transparent as a drop of rain. On the map of history, perhaps the water stain is memory” (fp, 137). And perhaps, too, the water stain tells us something real: rain fell, the map was marked. Every moment is two moments. Among the many meanings that these words hold within Fugitive Pieces, perhaps the most profound is this: every moment is its occurrence, and also the possibility of its telling—even if that telling is writing that gestures beyond the very possibilities of literary language. This is not an abstract act, but one at the very heart of reclaiming the ethicality of memory from the sheer happening of history.

Michael Richardson

Michael Richardson teaches writing, media, and cultural studies at the University of Western Sydney. His research focuses on literary and cultural representations of torture, secrecy, and power. He coedited the collection Traumatic Affect (2013) and has published on writing, trauma, and literature. He also reviews books, writes commentary, and is finishing his first novel, which was awarded a 2014 Varuna Publisher Introduction Program Fellowship. Once, he was the only Australian speechwriter in Canadian politics. He tweets at @richardson_m_a.


I would like to thank the two anonymous readers for the Journal of Literary and Trauma Studies, whose insightful comments improved this article.


1. Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces (1996; repr., Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007). Further references will be given in the text and refer to the 2007 edition.

2. Respectively: Shelley Hornstein, “Fugitive Places,” Art Journal 59, no. 1 (2000): 45–53; Erin Manning, “Beyond Accommodation: National Space and Recalcitrant Bodies,” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 25, no. 1 (2000): 51–74; Barbara L. Estrin, “Ending in the Middle: Revisioning Adoption in Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments and Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 21, no. 2 (2002): 275–300; Andrea Doucet, “‘From Her Side of the Gossamer Wall(s)’: Reflexivity and Relational Knowing,” Qualitative Sociology 31, no. 1 (2008): 73–87.

3. Respectively: Donna Coffey, “Blood and Soil in Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces: [End Page 97] The Pastoral in Holocaust Literature,” Modern Fiction Studies 53, no. 1 (2007): 27–49; Susan Gubar, “Empathic Identification in Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces: Masculinity and Poetry after Auschwitz” Signs 28, no. 1 (2002), 249–76; Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012); Marita Grimwood, “Postmemorial Positionings: Reading and Writing after the Holocaust in Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces,” Canadian Jewish Studies 11 (2003): 111–30, Dalia Kandiyoti, “‘Our Foothold in Buried Worlds’: Place in Holocaust Consciousness and Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces,” Contemporary Literature 45, no. 2 (2004): 300–30; Merle Williams and Stefan Polatinsky, “Writing at Its Limits: Trauma Theory in Relation to Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces,” English Studies in Africa 52, no. 1 (2009): 1–14.

4. Meira Cook, “At the Membrane of Language and Silence: Metaphor and Memory in Fugitive Pieces,” Canadian Literature 164 (2000): 16.

5. As the growing body of affect theory suggests, there are many ways of conceiving “affect.” The best starting point is Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds., The Affect Theory Reader (Durham, nc: Duke University Press, 2010).

6. Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

7. Gubar, “Empathic Identification,” 266.

8. Gregg and Seigworth, Affect Theory Reader, 1.

9. Williams and Polatinsky, “Writing at Its Limits,” 6.

10. Cook, “At the Membrane of Language and Silence,” 16.

11. Cook, “At the Membrane of Language and Silence,” 16.

12. See Kandiyoti, “Our Foothold in Buried Worlds,” 318; Leora Goldberg, “The Miraculous Story of the Jews of Zakynthos,” Jerusalem Post, December 13, 2009,

13. Cook, “At the Membrane of Language and Silence,” 16.

14. Williams and Polatinsky, “Writing at Its Limits,” 7.

15. Cook, “At the Membrane of Language and Silence,” 16.

16. Coffey, “Blood and Soil,” 33.

17. Grimwood, “Postmemorial Positionings,” 123.

18. See both Gubar, “Empathic Identification,” and Grimwood, “Postmemorial Positionings,” for well-considered discussions of this aspect of the novel.

19. Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 2002), 158.

20. Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, 107.

21. Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, 151.

22. Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, 130. [End Page 98]

23. Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, 164. Some caution must of course be exercised in simply applying Agamben’s thinking on the witnesses of Auschwitz to other circumstances.

24. Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, 145.

25. Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, 146.

26. Gubar, “Empathic Identification,” 256–57.

27. Anne Michaels, “The Morality of Memory,” Guardian, June 6, 2009,

28. Williams and Polatinsky, “Writing at Its Limits,” 11.

29. Gubar, “Empathic Identification,” 272.

30. Brian Massumi, Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts (Cambridge, ma: mit Press, 2011), 176

31. Massumi, Semblance and Event, 58.

32. Massumi, Semblance and Event, 24.

33. Quoted in Grimwood, “Postmemorial Positionings,” 124.

34. Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, 147–48. [End Page 99]