|More Money Than God
Poems by Richard Michelson
|Pitt Poetry Series, 2015
Balanced on the threshold of misery and comedy, Richard Michelson’s More Money Than God is an examination of the intersections where personal tragedy and global suffering meet. In Michelson’s fourth collection, we find poems that seek resolution but settle for meaninglessness, all the while aiming for a little levity.
The book opens with a comparison between two holiday heavyweights (pun intended) – Santa Claus and the prophet Elijah. The men are sized up quickly. Santa gets the “weight advantage,” but Elijah comes from a storied tradition of “fire-tinged horses… whirlwind / and brimstone.” The two figures duke it out for a young Michelson’s admiration, but this coming-of-age poem ends with the speaker’s plea to his dead father: “Give me
the imagination to climb the fire escape
and look up toward the Godless Heavens
and to marvel at the ordinary sky.
It is in poems like this one that Michelson’s comic sensibility is at its strongest. He can lighten the mood without undercutting his attempts to wonder about big, solemn ideals. These sorts of dualities inhabit many of the images Michelson presents us – the darker side of mass hysteria, a man watching sitcoms the night his father is murdered, children playing loudly in the halls of the Holocaust museum.
This same lightheartedness that allows Michelson to complicate the concepts of genocide, erasure, and his own pained family history rings a bit hollow when turned toward other subjects. His poems on race, in particular, seem more tenuously situated than their counterparts. A vague reference in one poem to “the rotten mulatto” and other racial signifiers (quadroon, octoroon, one sixty-fourth) seems to be Michelson’s hesitant justification – or apology? – for broaching the subject of race relations. We learn a few details about Michelson in this regard: that the man who shot his father was black, that he is offended by the inclusion of a cocktail called the Dead Negro on a bar menu, that he is aware of a history of slave ownership even among Jews in the antebellum South, and that he is “unable / still, to determine the Dixie line dividing ignorance from evil.” In the end, these poems amble toward uncertain interpretation. Is Michelson, in recognition of the Jewish people’s historical exclusion from the category of whiteness, attempting to draw parallels to or even own the experience of blackness? The few poems we are given in this vein don’t venture deep enough to tell us. In a similar way, the poems in the book’s third section, “This Costume’s No Disguise,” all persona poems spoken by Death and his loved ones, wind up more an exercise in flash, bravado, and form than any genuine reflection on mortality.
Admittedly, Michelson takes on subjects in this book that are terribly difficult to address, and he does so unapologetically. These are poems that bring to light concentration camp tourism, poverty, and crime, while still allowing glimpses of beauty to peek through – like the children “who drew / such dazzling yet delicate butterflies at Terezin.” Each poem is a search for meaning, a question as to how we can possibly survive this world, as Michelson sets and resets new weight on the scales of justice. “I never said anybody’s blameless,” he writes, letting us in on the joke. Yes, this world is imperfect. There is everything to be fixed and mourned and commemorated. Still, Michelson reminds us, “the poem ends here // but life continues: yours, of course, and for now, mine.”