Michelson traveled for extended stays to Finland, Sri Lanka and China. In poems from these ventures, the narrator’s aggressive, appetitive stance and roiling language is replaced by the more narrative, less self-reflexive language of the witness. This is especially true of the Sri Lanka poems, which represent both the visitor’s wonder at an exotic, tropic world and the explicit terrors of trying t negotiate a police state under siege by violent insurgents. Michelson is at all times acutely aware of the politics in which his poetry operates. He manages the subtleties of Mao’s operational aesthetics, the agilities required of re-educated writers and scholars, as well as the simple Red Book faith of the radiator technician, and his recourse to mutual support, patience and grace is earned, certainly.
There has always been a calculated recklessness about Michelson’s poetry, a wild surmise balanced by an acute sense of line and stanza, complex rhetorical periods and perfect, if unexpected, rhymes. For most of his career as a poet his stance has been bardic, his voicing deliberately public. His liveliness has had a broad reach—history and politics, aesthetics, pornography, art and the movies, life and death in Asia and in America, as well as, recently, a redemptive intimacy.
Poised at “the crystal edge” of “the Golden West” Peter Michelson’s poems are made of travails and triumphs, restless insights. Pausing in Colorado and Sri Lanka and Puget Sound, we keep discovering that history immerses us in calamities and friends puffing cigars, and we slowly enter a world upended by “uncivil inelegant people” who, under orders, take delight in “rooting the beautiful meadow…” In Mixed Frequencies we land our ships, and ghosts “work their dark pacific / sea and bend to haul up gleaming / nets….” We finally peer through Telstar to glimpse a weary Leschi, doomed by law in 1858. Mortal ropes tug at these verses, revealing the lucid machinery that shines in the poetry of Peter Michelson.
“What interests me most about a work of art is the artists quality of mind,” said Henry James, feeling Jamesian. Nobody could be less Jamesian than Peter Michelson but toss in quality of spirit and generosity and it tells me why what he writes about is interesting: he brings to his subjects an engaged mind, infectious vitality, and big heart.
New & Selected Poems
by Peter Michelson
$22.95, paperback, 296pp