As the title of Richard Michelson's mordantly comic new collection suggests, these poems are concerned with value — material and spiritual and all that lies in between, which, in a word, might be summed up as "family." In the title poem, Michelson, in real life an art dealer with a gallery in Northampton, Massachusetts, is at an art auction bidding on an autographed edition of some unspecified book, when he recalls his father's derision at some showy possession of a neighbor's. ("The cost of living,/ he would argue, is not the worth of being alive.").
Michelson's father, a hardware store owner in Brooklyn who was killed in a robbery attempt when his son was still a boy, teaches life lessons that the son takes to heart. Michelson writes in the poem, "Worth": "A man takes care of his family first,/ he'd say, before adding, but no one will remember/ me, so what's my advice worth?" Of course, such wisdom is worth a kingdom; thus after just these two poems we grasp the themes and attitudes that consume Michelson throughout this book, which is by turns bleak, mystical, comic, angry, despairing and hopeful: family, Judaism, the intrinsic value of art, if any, violence, death.
Indeed, death is never far away in these poems. Pogroms, the Holocaust, street crime seem to have followed Michelson's family throughout the generations. He invokes his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents in poem after poem. His great-grandfather appears in "My Mother, at Sixty, Learns to Drive," in a letter he wrote from the Empress Victoria Hotel. "He was dead before the dispatch arrived in Brooklyn." In "Obama Checks Black" his grandfather is confronted by a census taker with checkbox questions about his identity, the kind that pigeonhole human beings into categories, and he recalls the "who is a Jew" Nuremberg laws in Nazi Germany. In "At the Book Signing" Michelson remembers his grandmother, embittered, dreaming of "the neighbor kids — and their Jew-baiting taunts;// and now the SS officer who raped her/ after she asked why her husband was arrested." "Heritage Your Package" recounts a tourist visit to a concentration camp. Under the famous sign, Arbeit Macht Frei ("Work Makes You Free," a slogan placed over the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps), "I'm posed/ between the honeymoon couple and the recent retiree."
A whole section of this collection, This Costume's No Disguise, is composed of rhymed poems about death, many bitter, ironic, macabre: "Death's Costume," "Death's Secret Life," "Death's Dog," "Death's Dinner Party." Many play artfully on the section title conceit — death, stark, unflinching, unadorned: no dodging what death is. "Factory Outlet" concludes: "Death masks? They're stacked in racks above./ Try this. It fits you like a glove."
But for all this bleakness, there seems a glimmer of redemption throughout, perhaps in the very continuity of family, perhaps in the enduring legacy of art. The poem "Forgiveness," which takes place on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, ends with the poet asking his wife's forgiveness:
I'm sorry, I tell her, for everything.
I mean it, too. My whole life is a bad cowboy song.
I know, I croon, I done you wrong. It's no apology,
she calls from the kitchen, if you're not sincere.
But I can hear from her tone that she's already smiling.
Even in the interactions with his own son, we sense the triumph of family, the value of the tribe: the generations prevail.
More Money Than God concludes — where else? — in the poem "Death Valley," the poet making love to his wife.