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Battles & Lullabies
By Richard Michelson
University of Illinois Press
Author Richard Michelson was born into a working-class Jewish neighborhood fraught with racial tension and violence. Now an art dealer and gallery manager, he has spent his life pushing himself "toward financial and cultural success."
"I wanted to improve my station in life," Michelson told The Jerusalem Post in a telephone interview. "I've worked hard for many years, often 12-hour days, seven days a week in order to raise my own children with all the material comforts, surrounded by fine paintings and books."
Battles & Lullabies is Michelson's latest book, a work that explores his struggle as a writer. It follows Masks (2000) andTap Dancing for the Relatives (1985). The latter is a limited edition fine press collaboration with the late artist Leonard Baskin, Michelson's mentor and close friend, whose work decorates the cover of this book of poetry. Michelson has also published several award-winning children's books, including Too Young for Yiddish, about the survival of the Yiddish language, in 2002.
The author is owner and manager of the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he exhibits a veritable who's who of artists, including Leonard Nimoy's controversial "Shekhina Project," which included photographs of nude women wrapped in tefillin and tallitot to portray the feminine essence of God. He also curates exhibitions for The National Yiddish Book Center.
He began writing children's books, he says, because he believed children should be "exposed to good writing - if I can flatter myself - and fine illustration.
"And yet," he adds, "as I sit in my study scribbling notes, most of the world does not have the luxury I or my children have to pursue our dreams. Had I been born 20 years earlier in Europe, I would have had no options open to me, hard work or no. And I wonder what my artistic pursuits are truly adding to the world. Would I be more useful fighting in more direct ways for what I believe is right?
"And of course, cultured individuals are not more likely to be kind. Why do I find solace in art?"
THE ANSWERS lie in the five chapters of Michelson's Battles and Lullabies. The first chapter explores the bittersweet memories of a child affected by violence and poverty who has grown up to appreciate the comic implications of daily life; fear, confusion and resignation mingle with some degree of optimism for the future.
The opening poem of Chapter 1, "Gift-Wrapping the Garbage," has Michelson himself as the bridge between two worlds. His loving, humorous attempt to paint a picture of his father (a poor Jewish shopkeeper in the slums of Brooklyn) for his college-aged son (a well-educated, assimilated third-generation New Yorker, able to fully take part in the American dream), cannot dull his broken heart.
"Your future's in this rear-view mirror," Michelson tells his son in "Like Nobody's Business," as he listens to the young man's busy chatter about money and majors, while recalling his own father's death from a gunshot wound.
"Who will remember my father when I am gone?" he asks in the poem "Counting to Six Million."
Michelson tells us he was laughing and watching Batman reruns when he got the news that his father "lay dying, gasping for breath in some dirty gutter, gunned down for a half-empty briefcase, a gefilte fish sandwich."
In Chapter 2, Michelson turns directly to the intersection of art and life and examines the "emotionally symbolic paintings" of Edvard Munch (1863-1944), whose work speaks to Michelsohn, both artistically and emotionally. He considers him "a fine technician in his art without sacrificing any of the emotional thrust."
"In fact the emotion works because of the formal skills," says Michelson. "On a human level, Munch had many difficulties in his life, yet he never ceased to find solace in his creative life, and his family was always of prime importance to him."
Speaking in the artist's own voice he refers in "The Inheritance" to Munch's father's consumption and his mother's insanity, both of which resulted in tragic consequences for their offspring: "Dear Lord, look how gently he holds her, as though, in their love there is hope. For once, I forgive them their future."
In "The Scream," he has Munch's sister, on her way to an insane asylum, explain, "It's alcohol and Nordstrand's blood red evening sun that sets on all our souls."
Chapter 3 deals with scenes from the Holocaust.
"It is amazing to me," Michelson told the Post, "that even under such extreme conditions of the death camps, some were driven to create art."
"The March of the Orphans" speaks in the voice of Janus Korzcak. "Proudly/ clad in Sabbath clothes, we'll line up/ four abreast and sing so loudly all Warsaw/ will hear our joyous song. I'll kiss Stefa/ and if there's time, recite some poems,/ before, like wild dogs, we're slaughtered."
A series of poems inspired by the sensual paintings of the great masters makes up the fourth chapter.
Of Degas he says, "It's late in life/ we learn to read. Early we aim to finish the book/ or write our own." About Toulouse Lautrec he has a Moulin Rouge girl wonder, "tonight, if by chance I danced into his heart,/ would he speak to me of love,/ or of the limitations of his art?"
"Terrified, he paints, while we starve, fresh fruit/ rotting on our table," says Cezanne's wife, Hortense Fiquet, of her husband. "I will capture the feminine or I will have failed," says Mary Cassatt, of her own art. "There is no lack of women painters."
The fifth and final chapter contains the poem "Recital," a section of which precisely sums up Michelson's universal message.
"IV. Interior Affairs" reads as follows: "My wife's already in the kitchen baking cookies for our daughter's first recital/ when I sit down for breakfast. Somewhere it's nighttime: bombs are falling/ and children are starving; but I'm pouring the milk and the sugar,/ whistling a song and nibbling the nape of my lover's neck/ on the way back to the refrigerator; and neither of us can guess/ who will eventually find the cunning enemy, cancer,/ hiding like a secret code ring in the cereal box of the body."
"I am a Jew a generation after the Holocaust," he writes. "Poorer, my grandfather says, without a past, than he who has no future."
Michelson's allusions to his personal history in terms of the artistic struggle make the book a touching masterpiece. It hangs together beautifully and is accessible, honest, funny, moving and one of the best poetry books I've read in many years. I recommend it to anyone interested in literature and life.
Michelson has published two new books of children's poetry this fall.