Midwest Book Review

October 2006

Richard Michelson is a well-known writer of children’s books and the recipient of several poetry awards. His poems have been described as witty, shrewd, and beautifully modulated. Yes, they are that, but also shattering, powerful and, occasionally, gently erotic. Through the weaving of well-chosen words, the poet memorializes the courage and tenacity of Jewish ancestors and the simple, everyday happenings of life.

In this excerpt from “Like Nobody’s Business” Michelson remembers his father while showing his college-age son the old neighborhood:

It’s a war on poverty, I tell my son.
We’re driving through the old neighborhood, and I’m boring even myself, pointing out the burned-out empty lots, like they’re holes in my own heart.

“Counting to Six Million” is a psalm of wonderful and terrible beauty as a father remembers the Holocaust, and what impact the future might have on his son:

I want to set my heels once more in the soft underbelly of his childhood, airlift him from danger, from disease, from all his fears, which are maybe not even his fears at all, but only mine. Yet now as he hovers above me, my body splayed out
like my father’s before me, my every breath is less a prayer than a love letter torn open in desperation.

“Faraway Landscape” is based on a pen and ink drawing discovered at Buchenwald in 1944. The poet lives for a moment in that awful dying place, watching the artist:

O, how I’ve come to hate
his scratching late each night,
his fruit trees carved
into some moldy crust of bread.
He doesn’t care that starved
men envy their own dead.
He hears our cries but will not
document our pain. Instead..
he draws, knowing each line
could be his last, some Palestine,
some faraway landscape
as if he could escape this world
imagining the future
or the past.

Sections on the art of Edvard Munch and other artists are exceptional exercises in ekphrasis – poetry inspired by art. Munch’s art has been reviled and revered because he painted what he saw whether the focus was considered obscene or divine by critics.

Effective ekphrastic poetry is not easy to write, but Michelson makes it look simple as he views paintings by Munch, Cassat, Toulouse Lautrec, Picasso, and others.

Review by Laurel Johnson