Sleep­ing as Fast as I Can

  • From the Publisher
By – October 11, 2023

The title of Richard Michelson’s new book of poems refers to the Yid­dish expres­sion Schluf gikher, men darf di kishn: Sleep faster, we need the pil­lows.” The phrase evokes both abun­dance and scarci­ty — one imag­ines large fam­i­lies in crowd­ed homes, cop­ing with a short­age of resources with a sur­plus of humor. They have intractable prob­lems with impos­si­ble solu­tions: Sleep faster!”

As read­ers of his pre­vi­ous col­lec­tions know, Michel­son is inter­est­ed in such prob­lems. Sleep­ing as Fast as I Can exam­ines racism and anti­semitism, the tragedies of his­to­ry and the present, faith and grief, and the betray­als of the body and the mind. His work reflects a deep con­cern for reli­gion, love (espe­cial­ly famil­ial love), and the music of poet­ry — even if these things are inad­e­quate respons­es to the cru­el­ties of the world. 

His fam­i­ly crowds the poems, par­tic­u­lar­ly his father, who was killed in a rob­bery of his Brook­lyn hard­ware store when Michel­son him­self was a young father. Also fea­tured is his now-elder­ly moth­er, who wan­ders through the shad­ows and light of demen­tia. He remem­bers his grand­fa­ther call­ing him a Holo­caust Jew”: And not kind­ly. / My iden­ti­ty defined by the neg­a­tive; not pas­sion, not mys­tery, / not awe before the great unknown, but the bur­den of his­to­ry / and fear.” 

One way that Michelson’s poems bear that the bur­den of his­to­ry / and fear” is by rec­og­niz­ing that the bur­den does not belong to Jews alone — or even in par­tic­u­lar. The book’s open­ing poem, Prayer,” mourns anoth­er Black motorist / mur­dered live on YouTube (shared, copied, spread viral­ly), / tomor­row an Asian, Tues­day a Jew.” Michel­son rec­og­nizes that the oppressed can also oppress, as in the poem Truth,” in which an anti­se­mit­ic slur uttered in his Mass­a­chu­setts art gallery (“dur­ing nego­ti­a­tions for the Richard Yarde water­col­or por­trait of Sojourn­er Truth”) takes him back to his own past use of a slur for Romani. The Roma too escaped to a strange land,” he reflects, where they were mis­tak­en / for Egyp­tians and dis­dained as thiev­ing gypsies.” 

God is here, often near­by, but is nei­ther near enough nor pow­er­ful enough to lift the bur­dens of the present, let alone those of his­to­ry. The Eighth Night” begins, A bul­let behind the Gates of Heav­en: one angel has fall­en, / anoth­er flee­ing. High­er pick­ets, God promis­es, wider posts.” The divine, in oth­er words, offers no bet­ter reme­dies than we find here on earth. Try­ing to grasp the lat­est enor­mi­ty, Michel­son imag­ines smoke pour­ing from God’s com­put­er”: The ovens of Sobi­bor, Hiroshi­ma, Nine-Eleven, can­not com­pare / to the fumes ris­ing from God’s mainframe.” 

The lan­guage of Michelson’s poems is rich with the wry­ness, depth, and trag­ic echoes of Jew­ish humor. Yet he eschews both bit­ter­ness and arch­ness. An award-win­ning writer of many pic­ture books for chil­dren, includ­ing Too Young for Yid­dish and the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award – win­ning The Lan­guage of Angels: A Sto­ry about the Rein­ven­tion of Hebrew, Michel­son pos­sess­es an imag­i­na­tion that is, ulti­mate­ly, gen­er­ous and gen­tle. As he observes in the final poem, Coda”: Odd, / how laughter’s por­tions are larg­er on the poor­est menu. / Lord, give us the strength to feed each oth­er and continue.”

Nan Cohen is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tions Rope Bridge and Unfin­ished City and the chap­book Thou­sand-Year-Old Words. The recip­i­ent of a fel­low­ship from the Yet­zi­rah con­fer­ence for Jew­ish poets, her poems have recent­ly appeared on The Slow­down and in The Beloit Poet­ry Journal.

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