New England WATERSHED Magazine
Battles & Lullabies: Poems
By Richard Michelson
University of Illinois Press, pp.88, $18.95 (paper)
Richard Michelson’s Battles & Lullabies is saturated with the past, though never confined by it. An acute awareness of Jewish history with its ancient emphasis on the fundamental worth of human life is a significant element of any Michelson book, whether a collection of poems or one of his award-winning children’s books. Against this backdrop he details the stories culled from his own family’s past — a father gunned down in the street– the victim of a petty robbery, an aunt haunted by memories of the Gestapo, the poet and his wife trying to guess “who will eventually find the cunning enemy, cancer,/ hiding like a secret code ring in the cereal box of the body,” the affirmations and buoyancy provided by the births and lives of a gifted son and daughter. To this mix he adds a group of poems that illuminate particular paintings; for Michelson, visual art (in this case, paintings by Munch, Cassatt, Toulouse-Lautrec and others) projects its own life lessons– no surprise to anyone who has walked, admiringly, through his R. Michelson Art Galleries in Northampton and Amherst, Massachusetts. Whether seen through the lens of Jewish history, personal history, or art history, this question resonates: How does one act responsibly in a world balanced precariously on the edge of despair and ruin?
One answer is to uncover and honor a personal history and family worth one’s loyalty. “Halloween”, a poem buttoned up in the jacket of a sonnet, yet spilling out the seams, describes a father’s complex response to a childhood rite of passage.
Her face, blood-streaked, is no longer my daughter’s.
She’ll wear no lace this year, no tiaras, no bows.
She bobs, fangs bared, through the thin skin of water.
She’s bitten the apple. Triumphant, she goes
to collect her prizes. And I’m left to remember
my own father sewing, under my collar,
a blood-stained cape. His warning, like thunder,
still rings in my ears. With each stitch he’d holler
Beware the God-damned sons’ a’bitches
with their poisons and candy bait. Now I wait
for my daughter, who has entered a night full of witches.
Gone, before I could kiss her goodnight.
And the doorbell keeps singing: too late, too late.
Even the full moon is missing a bite.
As “a Jew/ a generation after the Holocaust”, one who has, in Elie Wiesel’s phrase, “inherited its burden without its mystery”, the poet must grieve his losses at one remove from the cataclysmic events that branded the lives of his parents and grandparents. He is a survivor of survivors, a man of private sorrows. Humor is often a protective shield, as when he laments his beloved grandmother’s habit of refusing to buy green bananas: she’s “unwilling to make an investment in her future.” Yet he is also keenly aware that she, whose brother died when his “tank turned, unexpectedly, upside down in Germany,” is trying to protect him from the “intricate but historical patterns of sudden death.” Life breaks through all our protective barriers, anyway. “Life, my grandmother once explained to me, is not poetry.”
Ultimately, the people who inhabit Richard Michelson’s poems avoid despair by seeking out–persistently, ardently– rich human connections. I’m reminded of novelist Saul Bellow, who, more than thirty years ago, created a memorable procession of solitary questers– men mostly, who came to discover finally that “goodness is achieved not in a vacuum, but in the company of others, attended by love.” Like Bellow, Michelson believes that there may be some truths on the side of life; if there are, they emerge out of connections to human experience larger than the solitary self.