Flashes of Brilliance
Elizabeth Stansell – South Carolina Review
How do we come to terms with loss? How are we to function day to day in a world that’s at once devastatingly beautiful and full of devastation? Is art capable of helping us cope with this conundrum? And how do we properly honor the dead and make history significant to our children? These questions of life and death, past and present, splendor and suffering are the primary concerns of Richard Michelson’s Battles and Lullabies, a refreshingly genuine and poignant reflection on what it means to be the children and grandchildren of survivors of the Holocaust, and how the instinctual urges of creativity and sexuality can counterbalance even the greatest of tragedies.
Michelson’s Jewish heritage is at the heart of this collection of poetry, although questions of art and its significance are never far behind. The poems are presented in five sections: “Counting to Six Million,” “Head of a Man beneath a Woman’s Breast,” “The March of the Orphans,” “Bathing by Candlelight,” and “The Jews that We Are.” The arrangement of these sections nicely intertwines the varying strains of Battles and Lullabies, with the first and the last sections focusing primarily on Michelson’s relationship with his family and Jewish heritage while the middle three sections explore issues concerning artistic creativity, sexuality, sorrow, and death.
Thoughts of his ancestors at the hands of the Nazis, as well as his own father’s gunning down in Brooklyn, pervade the poet’s consciousness as he struggles with discerning the best way to honor the memory of the dead and those who suffered. For example, in the title poem of “Counting to Six Million,” the poet recounts completing this feat with his son as “a visualization of tragedy,” the horror that befell prior generations of his “tribe.”
But Michelson does note that even in the midst of all bleakness, some good can emerge. For instance, in “Undressing Aunt Frieda,” Michelson introduces us to his aunt, an aging Holocaust survivor now on her deathbed. Instead of despairing the imminent death of this loved one, the poet chooses to remember “the lightness of her hands / and their strength, which somehow lifted me / above the nightmares she had known.” Despite what this woman had endured years earlier, she managed to rise above it—and this strength and tenacity will be her legacy.
Art is presented as another way in which to leave a legacy for future generations. The second section in Battles and Lullabies, “Head of a Man beneath a Woman’s Breast,” is comprised of poems told from the perspective of several women in the life of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, who also provides his own “self-portrait” in the end. The conclusion of the section portrays Munch’s reflections on having to leave his home or risk “the consequences of the German army.” Munch takes comfort in the fact that he is “surrounded by [his] children; sixty years of drawings.” In fact, as he leaves all his art to the city of Oslo, he declares, “Death is to my art as a mother to her children.” This statement provides a direct connection between death, procreation, and the creation of art.
Indeed, throughout Battles and Lullabies, art provides a way to rise above the reality of one’s situation, however squalid or terrifying or heartbreaking it might be. The third section of Battles and Lullabies, “The March of the Orphans,” portrays victims of the Nazi regime—people suffering in concentration camps or facing imminent death—persisting in their creation of art, a fact that points not only to the necessity of art but to its possibility of providing transcendence. For instance, the artist in “Faraway Landscape” refuses to document the reality of the concentration camps in his work; he prefers to portray various fantastical faraway landscapes for temporary relief to his situation. His artwork provides an avenue of hope, however slight or transient, “as if he could escape this world / imagining the future / or the past.”
Likewise, in the section entitled “Bathing by Candlelight,” the speaker of “Rouge” comments that her artist-friend is “a beautician, / your talent covering nature’s outrageous birthmarks / with the abstract unity of beauty,” and sex has this same capability of providing momentary beauty in anyone’s life. Meanwhile, the speaker of “Young Men Painting: Warsaw Ghetto, 1943” (in “March of the Orphans”) is astonished that passion still exists, that desire perpetuates through all kinds of tragedy. He wonders, “What Muse could whisper Beautiful, / and tempt them to remember what a young man / would of women. Desire stings their souls. . . .”
However, even more potent than sheer sexual desire in these poems is the desire for children. For example, in the final section of the collection, the speaker in “What to Tell Your Children about Nuclear War” wonders at his own wish to populate this “filthy world”—something he never thought possible of himself. But this longing for offspring is a logical extension of the desire to establish and document one’s legacy properly.
The responsibility that the poet feels for adequate portrayal of his family and forebears is a main concern in the concluding section of the collection. Michelson is concerned that he lacks the credibility and experience to construct a proper homage to his ancestors. For instance, he writes, “I am a Jew / a generation after the Holocaust. / Poorer, my grandfather says, without a past / than he, who has no future.” Thus, one must wonder whether it is with sadness or relief that the poet realizes his young daughter and her friends bear little resemblance to their forebears, the survivors of the Holocaust. Michelson also struggles with the notion that his poetry could be a strong enough legacy to leave behind for future generations: “Would you still love me, I asked my father, if instead of fighting my own battles, / I deserted, conscientiously objected, sat on the sidelines, writing, / without even once harnessing the power to revise my life like words on a page?”
Michelson’s poems are wounded and raw and honest, intriguing in their sincerity and profundity. Overall, the poet attempts to honor the memory of the past without negating or neglecting the value and purpose of the present. As incongruous as our human longing may sometimes seem in grim circumstances, our desires for sex and art and children and beauty do serve a grander purpose: they are opportunities to glimpse flashes of brilliance in a seemingly pitch-black world.