Richard Michelson, More Money Than God, Pitt Poetry Series, University of Pittsburgh Press, 71 pp.; $15.95.
More Money Than God, Richard Michelson’s latest poetry collection, adds admirably to his triple-threat talents. This Campground summer resident’s children’s books, including Twice as Good, Lipman Pike, and, most recently, S Is for Sea Glass, have earned countless awards. Mr. Michelson’s Northampton art gallery is the go-to site for illustrated books as well as work by prominent artists like Barry Mosher and Leonard Baskin. More Money Than God is the fifth poetry collection for Mr. Michelson, who serves as Northampton’s current poet laureate.
The title poem of his latest collection mixes humor, family ties, and religion with force and felicity. Mr. Michelson attributes that title phrase to his father, who argued that the cost of living is not equal to the value of being alive, but also told his son, “Money talks.” Born into a Brooklyn Jewish family, Mr. Michelson articulates a deeply engaged religious and social sensibility, which he often wields with the ironic twists of a natural jokester. The first poem in this five-part collection, “Elijah Versus Santa,” opens with the tongue-in-cheek phrase, “Weight advantage: Santa.”
Mr. Michelson’s poems are often richly allusive, ranging in reference from Maimonides to Rilke and Cezanne. Equally important is the poet’s mastery of cultures and ethnicities. In “What’s So Funny?” a laughter epidemic in Tanganyika leads to his meditation on Germany’s gas bill and factoids like “98 percent of American women wish your member was bigger.” He ties the murder of his father, a hardware store owner, to a Soviet bar’s drink item, “Dead Negro” in a poem of the same name.
Titled “Between Poetry and Peace,” the second section of More Money Than God explores the place of Jews in the old South in the poem “Pinecomb and Comb.” There he asks black poets, “What kindness will you show your Maw-maws, trying only to pass through their coarse and ironed hair, this fine-toothed comb?” The racial/ethnic categories of census takers inspire Mr. Michelson’s muscular verbs and adjectives in “Obama Checks Black.” He conveys a shared sense of identity in “Location, Location, Location” when he writes, “It could be me, this Palestinian planting bulbs/near a West Bank bus station.”
The third section of More Money Than God demonstrates Mr. Michelson’s verbal dexterity with rhymes, including “bonnets” and “sonnets,” or “chinks” with “links.” He examines metaphorically the nature of death with “death masks” in “Factory Outlet,” and in the voice of the Grim Reaper says, “All niggers, spics and chinks/ can socialize here comfortably and linger over drinks” in “Death’s Dinner Party.” The important role and redemptive power of artistic expression take pride of place in the fourth section, titled “Angels in Training.” Here the poet includes “Another Holocaust Poem” and investigates the transformative significance of tattoos in the tour-de-force “Tattoos on Jews.”
Mr. Michelson caps his latest collection in its final section, “Unaddressed Envelope.” There, he investigates language and education in the poem “Dante’s Politics” with “pinwheel of words” and in “Two Harvests,” where he finds social studies teacher Frolich “finally dead/But refusing to die.” More Money Than God offers the reader far more than the graceful linguistic arrangements of words and ideas that is the hallmark of so much poetry. It also unites contemporary issues and ideas with the profoundest of beliefs and feelings.