Afterlight by Isa Milman

Almost midway through her deeply moving memoir, Afterlight, Isa Milman discusses the composition of one of her poems: “I wrote it in what felt like a fugue state.” This description of the spontaneous gestation of her poem goes well beyond the poetics of a specific moment of dissociation from reality: her search for poetry, history, and home in Afterlight may be seen as an extended fugue state. Indeed, the book’s fugue-like counterpoint in chapters that alternate between past and present, and the quest for a lost twin re-enact a family’s fugue state. Moreover, the entire experience of recreating the history of the Holocaust serves as a reminder of how humanity dissociates from reality during atrocity. Milman’s voice and experience re-associate the amnesia of post-traumatic fugue states.

Milman spends much of her memoir trying to find the lost poems of her Aunt Basia, her mother’s twin sister who was murdered by the Nazis. As she travels to Europe in search of Polish and Ukrainian family roots, she uncovers other details of her family’s history. Milman writes poetry with her aunt in mind, and one particular poem honours Raoul Wallenberg and her friend Vera Parnes, and intertwines her mother’s gulag stories during World War Two:

“My name is Vera. I work for Raoul.

He disappeared after Budapest and

my job is to find him.

In the gulag you’ll find no wild game but

many have lost teeth biting into

a wolf. When there is no cutlery

such things are possible. Why, one night

as I hurried from commissary to hut

through knee-deep snow

I was forced to throw hot soup

in a wolf’s face …”

This poem displaces Aunt Basia and Isa’s quest to find her in Poland instead of Hungary. The wolf doesn’t belong to any fairy tale, but to the nightmare at the door, the hunger and deprivation that run through the pages of Afterlight.

The book opens with Mark Strand’s epigraph:

“That your search goes on for something you lost — a name,

A family album that fell from its own small matter

Into another, a piece of the dark that might have been yours …”

Strand’s search is Milman’s quest for lost names, a piece of the dark, and a fallen family album. In her “Introduction “ she explains her title: afterlight refers to light visible in the sky after sunset, or to a retrospective inquiry into history. That crepuscular moment complements her fugue state. Absorbed in memory and filling in blanks, the writer looks into a rearview mirror and gives life to ancestral specters. From Victoria to Siberia Milman’s memoir weaves a tapestry of tragedy and redemption through generations. The branches of her family tree accompany maps of her mother Sabina’s trek in 1939 from Warsaw to Kostopol, followed by another series of deportations from 1940-1946. These traumatic odysseys make it so difficult to put down roots, yet the author plants roots that flourish in Afterlife.

Her first chapter, “Opening the Box of History,” opens dramatically, and other chapters alternate between past and present, adding a fugue-like chronology and rhythm that propel the narrative. “The day after my mother was expected to die, when all of us gathered in New London, Connecticut, heavy with grief, to say goodbye, she had a change of heart and woke up.” The poet opens history’s box rhyming “die” and “goodbye” that carries over to “Bobie, Bobie” in the next sentence, as her great-granddaughter’s voice calls out to her. On her deathbed the eighty-nine-year-old matriarch begins to recount her story, while Milman serves as her amanuensis. The story concerns her twin sister Basia, a published poet killed during the war. Milman preserves her notes in a cardboard box, which she opens years later when she and her husband go on a fishing trip to Cluxele River, on the northern edge of Vancouver Island. As she immerses herself in her family’s Ukrainian-Polish history, she enters a kind of dream state, which is interrupted by the appearance of her husband holding a couple of silvery salmon.

These two salmon form part of a doubling pattern in Afterlife with twins running in the family and two large chestnut trees in the Polish village that mark the site of a destroyed ancestral home. Like the maps and family tree, the photographs in the middle of the memoir bear witness to past events. To prepare for her trip to Poland, the author turns to her earlier poetry collection, Prairie Kaddish, and is reminded of an epiphany she experienced while standing in the Lipton Hebrew Cemetery in Saskatchewan: “As if I heard a drum / struck by an invisible hand.” The drum beat and invisible hand belong not only to her Jewish past, but also to the nearby history of First Nations — the grave houses of the Cree and Métis. Afterlight sheds a light on the ligatures of peoples, generations, and geographies where place is a pause in movement— the Diaspora of tragedy, reconciliation, and reclamation.

How fitting that Milman’s name evokes her grandfather’s mill, as her creativity captures the rivers, villages, and vicissitudes of history. A kind German soldier saves her mother, Milman returns to her ancestral village in Ukraine where she is feted; on the other hand, her experience in Kostopol is quite the opposite. Sabina survived, in part, because of her fluency in several languages — a gift inherited by her daughter. In her “Afterword” the memoirist discovers a letter written by her aunt in 1935, not the poetry she had hoped to find, but clear, progressive prose instead. Milman consults Milosz’s anthology of poems, A Book of Luminous Things. 

Afterlight has its own luminosity: it embodies tikkun (repair), kaddish (prayer for the dead), and yahrzeit (the annual memorial candle lit to remember the departed). This memoir serves as a memorial to extended families in the Diaspora.

Isa Milman is an award-winning author and the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Poland. She came with her family as refugees to the United States in 1950, immigrated to Canada in 1975, and has called Victoria home for the past twenty-five years.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Heritage House (Oct. 4 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 288 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1772033839
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1772033830

Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.