Between the lines

Richard Michelson walks among the angels in his new book of poetry.


The poet Richard Michelson writes about life even when reflecting on death. In his new book of poems, “Sleeping as Fast as I Can,” he tells us that “L’Chaim” is a Hebrew toast meaning “to life!” Among the graves of the dead in his poem, “Wedding in the Cemetery,” he announces, “L’chaim still reverberates off of every broken headstone.”

Michelson’s meditative, expansive, and ironic voice celebrates vitality throughout the poems in this collection, written in a time of rising anti-Semitism that Michelson and many of us did not think to see in our lifetime. Deeply embedded in these poems are details of Michelson’s family history, Jewish history, and the explosive events of 21st-century life in the U.S.

In one of three intricately rhymed sonnets, all titled “Life Sentence,” we learn about the murder of Michelson’s father when Michelson was a young boy. The details of that life-altering moment are scattered throughout the book. In “Angels With Guns Guarding the Gates of Heaven,” Michelson reveals that his father died in a Brooklyn gutter, murdered by “a fifth generation, drug-addicted, unemployed house / painter whose ancestors were dragged here like devils in chains.” He quotes his mother, “Gunned down, she repeats, for ten dollars and half a tuna sandwich.” In “Envisioning the Life, Post-Parole, of My Father’s Murderer,” Michelson writes, “Behind bars, you found Jesus, Krishna, Mohammed, Buddha. / Your debt paid, I have come to welcome you to your future.” Michelson’s own life has given him the time denied his father: “I have leisure / to ponder how doubt can enter the eye socket of the body / like a bullet … scattering the interior architecture of belief.”

Michelson pays tribute to his tough-minded mother, who hammered words “into a flight of stairs she could climb past grief / ascending up and out of her own history,” even as he documents her old-age slide into dementia. “Thingamabob / is what you christened everything that first chilly December / you forgot my father’s name, and then my father.”

An intricate, complex humor suffuses Michelson’s work. The very title of his book comes from a Yiddish folk saying, “Sleep faster, we need the pillows!” In one of the “Life Sentence” sonnets, he tells us he insisted his mother take a creative writing course at her assisted-living facility. “Enough plot? or too literary / she asks … which seems / a peculiar question while composing one’s obituary.” In another poem, she watches a hummingbird outside her window, “‘Miraculous,’ she whispers, as if sanctifying that word.”

Michelson’s meditative embrace of his and his family’s place in Jewish history informs a sequence of poems titled, “Turtle of Slow Devotion: Eleven Prayers for Passover.” In the performing of Passover rituals — the washing of hands, the breaking of matzo, the dipping of the herbs — Michelson appears as a child with his grandparents, “I wash my hands of you, my grandmother bellowed / but I was feeling superior to the gaudy housedress / pattern of her dictates.” He and his brothers and sisters “weep together once more.” Ordinary household pets embody belief or faith or turtles of slow devotion.

The poems in “Sleeping as Fast as I Can” emerge from school shootings, from synagogue shootings, from religious rituals, and from events both commonplace and extraordinary.

They arrive as prayers to remind us that we must walk “between the Angel of All We Will Never Know, and the Angel of All We Must Never Forget.”

Holly St. John Bergon, who lives in Oak Bluffs, is the author of poems in Sewanee Review, Ploughshares, and the chapbook “Ghostly Glances.” 

Richard Michelson and National Book awardwinning poet Martin Espada will be having two events at Featherstone Center for the Arts. On Thursday, July 20, at 4 pm, they offer a poetry reading, and on Friday, July 21, at 10 am they will discuss “Poetry, politics, banned books, and trigger warnings.” Both events are free.