Book Bag: ‘Sleeping as Fast as I Can’ by Richard Michelson; ‘Stay’ by Howard Faerstein

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 04-21-2023 8:41 AM

Sleeping as Fast as I Can

by Richard Michelson; Slant Books

 

Richard Michelson has long made a name for himself as a children’s book author, winning a number of honors in the process, including a National Jewish Book Award for “The Language of Angels,” a story of the revitalization of Hebrew as a modern language.

But Michelson, of Amherst, has won plenty of notice for his adult poetry, too. And in “Sleeping as Fast as I Can,” his first collection for adults in eight years, he’s plumbed this modern era of pandemic, political polarization, gun violence, rising antisemitism and more to explore some fundamental questions: Where is God, and how can we find joy and wonder in our lives?

The owner of R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Michelson was born in a mostly Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York that became mostly black, and then Latino. His family was not religious, he notes — his mother was an atheist — but Jewish humor and history were still an important part of his upbringing.

“This is probably my most Jewish collection, and maybe a little more political than the others,” he said during a recent phone call. “But we’ve been through some tough times with the pandemic, the election of [Donald] Trump, with the surge in gun violence.”

And, Michelson added, “There’s been an increase [in antisemitism] that I didn’t think I’d ever see in my lifetime.”

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In “Sleep,” he ranges across some of that recent ugliness in the U.S. — the murder of 11 Jews in 2018 by a shooter in a Pittsburgh synagogue, the 2017 march by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia who chanted “Jews will not replace us” — and he worries about fraying ties between blacks and Jews.

He also reflects on family history, like the murder of his father, shot in his grocery store by a thief when he was a boy. And there are portraits of his late mother, offered with a gentle touch as she begins to battle with dementia: “Her marriage / is ever present, but she can’t recall her husband’s murder.”

Yet Michelson, a former poet laureate of Northampton, finds moments that bring joy even during his mother’s decline, such as watching her dance in a memory care unit as a music therapist, an accordion player, fingers the melody to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”:

“And so, I watch you sway and clap, your expression, / unrecognizable, is — dare I say the word? — sweet.”

Humor is also a key component of his work. In “Poisoning the Well,” Michelson recalls how, when he was 8 years old, he refused to wash his hands before dinner one night. That prompted his grandfather to tell him of Jews in Toulon, France being murdered in 1348 by mobs who claimed they had brought on the Black Plague by contaminating the city’s water supplies.

“[S]o a story / about purity, the bubonic plague, and God’s glory // is proper punishment; though then as now, persecution / and rotting cadavers seemed to me meager confirmation // of heavenly endorsement.”

Humor aside, the poet also considers this historic instance of scapegoating in relation to a contemporary example in the U.S. “on hearing the President cite a ‘Chinese virus’ / to stoke fear, while trumpeting ignorance.”

“It’s been a difficult time for me personally and for the country,” Michelson said. “But humor is important, and what I want to explore more than anything is how we can find our humanity even in dark times.”

There will be a publication party for “Sleeping as Fast as I Can” on April 23 at 4 p.m. at Michelson Galleries, including a poetry reading with Martín Espada, Paul Mariani, and Michelson.

 

Stay

By Howard Faerstein

Human Error Publishing

 

In a past Gazette interview, Florence poet Howard Faerstein once said that he looked at poetry “as an assemblage. I’m doing carpentry — I’m taking separate pieces and building something whole.”

In his new collection, “Stay,” Faerstein uses that approach to good effect on poems that can zig-zag between different time periods of his life and employ varied voices: tender, sardonic, jazz-like and riffing like one of The Beats, and sometimes full of disbelief and outrage.

In “Questions for the Moment,” the poet reflects on all manner of things, his thoughts darting from memories of his mother having to see her aunt being raped, to the loss of friends and family, to the dwindling numbers of right whales in the world.

“What earthly good is regret?” he asks. “Do you think Putin harbors any / regrets? Is that the dumbest question you ever heard?”

More to the point is the continued violence people inflict on one another: “Dead citizens of Ukraine. How many mass graves in Mariupal? / In Bucha? / Dead black folks in Buffalo. Did they wonder why they were / targeted? / Slaughtered 10 year olds in a Texas schoolroom. Is there any / hope?”

Faerstein, a New York City native now in his mid-70s, also contemplates his own mortality in poems such as “Gate of Heaven,” which begins with memories of being young in the city, thinking about sex but never about death, and rarely crying “except at the movies, / always exceptions.”

Now, though, he travels “along Jacob’s Ladder,” on a trail where angels are not visible, with only exposed tree roots on one side and “rows of hemlock ravaged / by woolly adelgid beetles / on the other.”

And in the prose poem “Nine Minutes and Twenty-Nine Seconds,” Faerstein recounts keeping watch on a maple tree for nine-plus minutes, recording things such as a snake moving by the tree’s base — all to imagine the time it took George Floyd to die under “the full weight of a cop on his neck.”

But “Stay” also offers images of hope, like “The Cellist of Northampton,” a nod to Iraqi cellist Karim Wasfi playing in the city last May as part of a project in which he performs solo recitals in public settings — including at suicide bombing sites in Baghdad — as a plea for peace.

As the poet writes, “The maestro is welcome / even here in our American city / of tranquil neighborhoods.”

Howard Faerstein, Richard Michelson, and three other poets will read from their work on May 20 at 2 p.m. at Forbes Library in Northampton.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached as spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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