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Credit: Slant Books

Richard Michelson, Sleeping as Fast as I Can (Slant, 2023), pp. 88.

In Negative Dialectics, Theodor Adorno tempered his often-quoted claim that it’s “barbaric” to “write poetry after Auschwitz,” conceding instead that “perennial suffering has just as much right to find expression as a victim of torture has to scream.” The concession implies a degree of equivalence between poetry and crying out in pain; it attributes to poetry the qualities of a scream across time: ear-splitting, jagged, visceral. But no matter how fractured the poem, no matter how disoriented in its syntax, imagery, or logic, the comparison doesn’t hold up. The decision to work in poetry, to write a text that is recognizable as a poem, inevitably has a formalizing, aestheticizing effect. By virtue of poetry’s genetic relationship to pattern, order, and pleasure, it takes pain, that which is inarticulate, and renders it legible—legible in its illegibility at best. As Emily Dickinson has it, “after great pain, a formal feeling comes.” After pain, without willing it, there comes a feeling for form, its “quartz contentment.” This was also one of Paul de Man’s points in “Anthropomorphism and Trope in the Lyric,” in which he characterizes lyric poetry as “a defensive motion of the understanding.” Lyric poetry mobilizes what Nietsczhe refers to as an “army of tropes” or figurations, ranging from metaphors to personifications to figures of address, the lyric I and Thou, to stabilize that which is inherently unstable—the impersonal seethe of language underneath its pragmatic day-to-day usages. The best poems make this struggle visible, where trope is constantly eroding and reconstituting itself in the babbling flux, dramatizing itself as a “defensive motion.” In other words, the drama of poetry written in response to pain, terror, or torture is that it can’t help making sense; it can’t help singing sweet when it would sing bitter, or not sing at all.

Singing about not wanting to sing is the subject of Psalm 137, a communal lament by captured Israelites on the banks of the rivers of Babylon. Instead of being allowed to weep, they were forced by their conquerors to sing: “they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” The psalm that the Israelites sing in reply is mirthful (“happy”) and violently “defensive” at the same time; the pressure to versify, to pluck the harp, warps weeping into bitter invective: “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. / Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” The compulsion to produce sweetness results in a bright song with a bloody thought. To sing, to work in poetry instead of weeping or screaming, is to summon an “army of tropes,” to wield the understanding “defensive[ly]” in response to disorientation and painful derangement.

Though they meditate with searing single-mindedness on the twin atrocities of Auschwitz and American racism, the poems in Richard Michelson’s new book, Sleeping as Fast as I Can, are both darkly humorous and highly formal. In other words, they are poems of “witness” (wit-ness) that register and respond to violence with defensive wit and an arsenal of traditional poetic forms, including a number of admirable sestinas, villanelles, hybrid sonnets, and invented rhyme schemes. The contrast between Michelson’s subject matter and his rhetorical prowess is stark and even jarring, a deep dissonance that the poet leverages to reflect on poetry’s relationship to violence—both its capacity to speak out against brutality with humane intelligence as well as its serviceability as a possible form of counter-violence. As I suggested above, to substitute weeping with sweet song gives the song an edge. In Sleeping as Fast as I Can, the repetitions that lend structure to form enable Michelson to process trauma and to nurse it as the basis for a grudge that threatens to consume him. The triumph of Michelson’s collection is that it dramatizes the conflict between these two properties of form—form as processural resolution and form as obsessive recursion. Throughout, the poet wrestles between the sanity of love and the madness of rage—an ambivalence that makes Sleeping as Fast as I Can a deeply important, deeply American book.

Michelson’s father was murdered over forty years ago—a loss that haunts the poet and serves as the emotional backdrop for many of the poems in his new volume. Michelson also reckons with his mother’s worsening dementia and eventual death. The mother-figure’s condition leads the poet to reflect on the viability of forgetfulness as a solution to the feverish patterns of thought that characterize his relationship to the past and its traumatizing persistence in the present. Michelson confesses and tries to reckon with the fact that his Jewish identity is “defined by the negative; not passion, not mystery / not awe before the great unknown, but the burden of history / and fear.” By contrast, he watches his mother, who lived for so many years in bitter “resign[ation]” to the fact of her “husband’s murder” and “an indifferent God,” regain her ability to dance and sing and be happy as a result of losing her memory. As Michelson observes of his mother’s condition:

                                                                                 It takes
a lifetime, Picasso said, to learn to splatter like a child. Mistakes
once mattered, but memory must be the narrative she’s rearranged
now that she can no longer color within lines. She has no quarrel
anymore with time; its loss, she seems to say, is sorrow’s cure-all.

Invoking Picasso, Michelson aligns creativity and obliviousness; the looser the painter’s grip on the past, the better the art. Michelson identifies his mother’s “quarrel with time” with his own. But whereas his mother has been obliged to let go and allowed to claim a degree of existential freedom in the process, the poet has not yet learned how to “splatter like a child” or color outside the lines; his enthrallment to “history and fear” is unmitigated. Indeed, his own lines are tightly organized, lamenting also the lines in the sand that segregate a divided, racist America. It may take a lifetime to learn to splatter like a child, but Michelson is highly suspicious of art’s claims to disinhibition and transcendence—as skeptical as he is about the possibility of personal healing or national reparation. Apart from his reference to Picasso, the only other usage of the word “splatter” in Sleeping occurs in a lurid passage that describes the “rain- / bows of blood and urine [that] splatter the sanctuary wall” during mass acts of violence, like the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And in his pessimistic “Breakfast Elegy for a Survivor,” Michelson critically recalls Hitler’s love of art and Shakespeare. In “Poetry,” which opens the collection, the poet imagines an elephant painting with all the colors of the “rainbow” to the amazement of the members of a circus audience, who ignore the handler’s “hook” in the “soft tissue” of the animal’s ear in order to believe in the “eternal uplifting power of art.” Everywhere throughout Sleeping is the latent argument that art is a problem: it requires oblivion, bad faith, and false consciousness at best and complicity and compulsion at worst. The rainbow hides the hook.

One reason that Michelson works with received forms is that they don’t splatter, or splatter less. They display their constraints, their constrictedness. They are weighted with historical consciousness—both because they have been inherited, passed down over time, and because they make use of internal repetition. Rhyme, for instance, relies on memory to resonate, and the rhyme scheme in Michelson’s sonnets (ABBA CDDC EFFE GG) is designed so that each stanza contains a couplet nested within a more distant rhyme that re-awakens in the ear, like an echo (a gunshot?) reporting back across a valley. Forms are also puzzles: the sestina possesses a cipher-like quality, turning the same words over and over in service of change and development. A puzzle can be solved, and there’s an impression reading Michelson that a sonnet about a mass shooting might be able to help make sense of it. But puzzles can also madden and induce frustration. Many of Michelson’s poems dwell in this puzzle-madness. He looks to his mother, a lover of puzzles, for guidance:

                                         I watch now, as my mother sets
aside her newspaper and pencil, struggling dizzily to her feet,
untroubled by phrases left unfinished, the puzzle incomplete.

Michelson aspires to silence—to phrases left unfinished, the puzzle incomplete—but he finds himself enthralled to form, to puzzling in poetry, attempting to solve or resolve. Against this solutional impulse, many of his poems take the form of prayers or sermonic invitations—“Let us be silent together,” he concludes in one poem; “Let my prayers be that ineffective,” he intones in another, with reference to his mother’s “silence,” which is like “the silences of grandfather’s goldfish: Celan, Adorno, Abel… Look / how their tiny mouths open and close, obliterating nothing.” The desire for inefficacy is a desire for non-violent passivity or pacifism; by contrast, Michelson’s poems, as intractable puzzles, often work themselves into a frenzy: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others—a text for every age. / But too soon the flame is mute; my mind again consumed by rage”—the final couplet in a sonnet that entertains “delight” for a moment but soon slips back into a brooding rut. In “Neighborhood Villanelle,” Michelson suggests that he has—or had, as a kid living in a rough neighborhood— “no appetite / for bloodshed or revenge. Instead, I walked for blocks, / prayed books would save my life.” His father, by contrast, while still alive, tells him that “you’d better learn to fight.” The “paradox,” Michelson observes, is that “a bullet stopped” his father’s life, “a lead plug he could not fight”; by contrast, the poet “escape[s] the neighorbood with every word [he] write[s].” By the end of Sleeping, however, I distrust this claim. I have more faith in Michelson’s confession elsewhere that he no longer believes “a guardian angel walk[s] before each of us, / unarmed, and chanting: Make way for the Image of the Lord.” Instead, he sees “shadows / positing a loaded gun in the poet’s hand.” In one of the last poems in the collection, Michelson offers a “Meditation on the Murder of the Overseer,” recalling Exodus 2:11-12, in which Moses kills an Egyptian slave-driver who he sees “smiting an Hebrew.” The passage continues: “And [Moses] looked this way and that way, and when he saw no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.” Michelson meditates on the necessity, if not the righteousness of Moses’s act; in other words, he entertains violence as a more effective solution to injustice when compared with vague imperatives to “overcom[e]…oppression” or mere “argument[s] against / institutional racism.” He continues:

I’m sitting in judgment between the snake and the rod; my heart,
that helpless Pharaoh, hardening inside me. My Dad was murdered
is what I thought I’d heard through the static, but I kept chattering
about second chances, the blood-red sea, and the hot desert sand.
Did thine enemy not save you before they enslaved you, the Lord
once enquired. We were at a crossroad, and so I looked this way
and then that way before I reached out and offered up my hand.

On the one hand, Michelson is painfully conscious of his father’s murder; he believes abstractly in forgiveness and the value of “second chances.” On the other hand, he feels his heart hardening inside him as he contemplates overseers of all kinds, all those who hold lash and rod. The hand in the poem’s final line is raised ambiguously, either to lend assistance or slay with a blade. Sleeping as Fast as I Can is a book that tarries with destroying angels.

Earlier I suggested that good poetry dramatizes itself as a defensive motion. Good poetry knows that it’s defensive, and in that knowledge works to mitigate the militance that gives it form. Michelson tempers what Wallace Stevens referred to as the (formal) poet’s “rage for order” in poems about passover, about rituals for remembering the past that bring friends and family together in the present. The afikoman, a “shard of matzo” that is wrapped in a napkin and hidden for children to find during the Seder service at Passover, provides a counter-emblem to this book’s other shards and sharpnesses. Michelson prays:

And if we must be broken, let us be broken
like the afikoman, the hidden shard of matzo
cherished above the whole. Let us be wrapped
in the soft linen napkin of the Lord’s silence
like pilgrims kneeling on smooth stones
in a Jerusalem gutter, oblivious to the clatter
of the market. Let our children, searching
beneath cushions, call out to claim lost quarters.
Let them ransom us back to the table.

Michelson does not deny or try to repair the fact of brokenness. The shard is wrapped in linen, which only partially comforts, since it is a linen of “silence,” of distant non-communication. Symbolic of an irresolvable, irreparably fallen condition, the matzo becomes the hidden object in a ritual game for engaging children, keeping them awake during the service; in other words, grief gets transformed into the basis for play—a quiet model for thinking about Michelson’s book as a whole, which revels in the playfulness of poetry as puzzle, as much as it also voices frustration and lament. Playing with shards (not unlike the children in Stevens’s “A Postcard from the Volcano,” who scamper around a place of ruin “picking up…bones” in ignorance that “these were once / As quick as foxes on the hill”), the children are able to “ransom” the adults “back to the table,” which is a place of gathering-together and sustenance, being sustained. Indeed, Michelson often looks to children for help. He admires the child’s vital eagerness and powers of misremembance; at the same time, the readiness of children to come up with answers to impossible problems provides the poet with a contrasting lesson in humility (or inefficacy, as above). In “Meditation Before the Saying of Prayers,” Michelson visits his son’s Sunday school class to deliver a box full of homemade cupcakes. He overhears part of the lesson, which asks the children “where was God before creating the universe or / the minds of men.” Observing the “hands shoot up” to give a pat response, the poet chooses instead to

                            personify perplexity and schmear
my mouth with chocolate. Let me stand here empty-
handed in front of the room, indiscernible as all being
before the word, or time’s creation, waiting for prayer.

This is the posture of Michelson’s book at its most redemptive: tender, a little smudged, a little silly (silly from seely, meaning “holy”), and puzzled above all into a sense of waiting wonderment. To wait is to continue, to not foreclose. “Lord, give us the strength to feed each other and continue”: the last lines in Sleeping as Fast as I Can. Michelson grapples with bewilderment in its twin guises, the bewilderment that comes with hurt and the bewilderment that comes with divine awe, and shows his reader that endurance, the will to continue, is actually this practice of grappling, wrestling like Jacob and the angel, who eventually breaks the deadlock by giving Jacob a wound in the thigh and a name meaning “blessed.” There is, in other words, no resolution: just a wound that is also a promise—a duality, or maybe ambivalence, at the heart of Michelson’s harrowing book.

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