Michael Salcman

Pictures on a Trembling Wall
—for Jack Whitten, 1939-2018

On the dining room wall a desperate man
and woman once stabbed their way through a wild river
smoking with rain; they left a faded patch of gray
and a triptych of Serrano photographs moved in,
its three parts capturing a single arc of jism
shot in space and timed to a camera
like the gait of a nineteenth century horse.
The struggling swimmers briefly came back,
(after all, we ate in this room) before a final banishment,
and Whitten’s black acrylic slab took up all the space
and air and never let go, hugging the wall
with a sense of desperation, sporting a grate
of vertical ravines dug by an African hair comb.
The painting held memories of its making:
an image of a metal door hinge or shackle he’d placed
beneath the canvas while troweling plastic resin
and floating flickers of yellow and blue pigment,
colors soaked from torn Japanese woodcuts.
Between the acrylic bars some fugitive white and gray
but not enough to erase the painting’s prisonous aroma
nor the demand it makes for looking harder.
Giving it a proper stare I feel it all:
his city’s streets and towers, and the pulse of a river rising,
even the fear of that drowning couple penetrates as if
they might escape nature’s wildness only to enter this cage.


Suicide Poem

1. End Thoughts

Three leading causes of death:
Alzheimer’s, Drugs and Suicide,
Dementia, Drugs and Despair.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Never had it so good.
In the first one is unaware of going,
In the second one doesn’t care.
But the third is perhaps the worst
Since it needs you to make it happen.

2. Instrument and Tool

What one makes
from understanding
is a plan
for making:

the naval carpenter with his adze,
the bookbinder with his tape,
the master vintner with his grape,
the suicide with his gas.


Six Reflections on Salvador Dalí (1904-1989)

I- The only difference between a madman and myself is that I am not mad.

After every meal Dali smeared honey on his lips in order to attract flies. He loved to feel their little feet climbing all over his face and tickling his nostrils. He found it erotic.

II- At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon…my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.

Such a smartass—unlucky to be born in Catalonia, the home of Picasso and Miró, nine months after the death of his older brother, also named Salvador! What were your parents thinking when they did this? Born without love, your main disaster before the death of your mother, you left one really famous painting and all this blather.

III- Liking money like I like it, is nothing less than mysticism—money is a glory.
Like Andy you never had enough. Excommunicated for greed by André Breton, the pope of surrealism, who made a famous anagram from your name: Avida dollars or hungry for cash. In your finest Surrealist moment you ruined the market for your own work by signing stacks of blank paper, a million dollars for fake prints you never saw bearing real signatures. No one can trust anything with your name after 1940, especially on a cruise ship.

IV- Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.

If only you had been born a van Eyck brother making the first oil paintings in 1410 with jewel like encrustations of wedding veils, perspiring tankards of ale, and convex mirrors or those real dragons and demons in Bosch, Surrealism avant la lettre. You would have been strange enough six hundred years before you stuffed them together like shrimp in a Thanksgiving turkey.

V- It is mostly with your blood, Gala, that I paint my pictures.

Like the ancient king of Lydia who showed other men his naked wife by stealth, Dalí was a candaulist who painted Gala having sex with others. They met on the Costa Brava in 1929, Dalí a virgin with a vagina dentata problem, she a Russian with strong urges. Gala came to him from a ménage à trois with Paul Éluard and Max Ernst, the Yoko Ono of the Surrealists, his second mother. Ten years older she never gave him a child to replace his brother. He called her the good fairy of his equilibrium, who banished the salamanders of [his] doubts and strengthened the lions of certainties…

VI- An elegant woman is a woman who despises you and has no hair under her arms

So he put her hair on his face, that famous moustache designed after Velazquez, a trademark shaped like a pair of lobster legs; all he needed was a helmet and a lance. After he and Gala were introduced to Freud and danced before him the doctor said “this boy looks like a fanatic.” Or a devious infant.

[all titles in the suite are by Dali; also the two line quote in italics in V]

© Michael Salcman

Michael Salcman‘s poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly ReviewHarvard Review, Hopkins ReviewThe Hudson Review, New Letters, and Poet Lore. His books include The Clock Made of Confetti (Orchises), nominated for The Poet’s Prize, The Enemy of Good Is Better (Orchises), Poetry in Medicine, a widely used anthology of classic and contemporary poems on doctors, patients, illness and healing (Persea Books, 2015), and A Prague Spring, Before & After (2016), winner of the 2015 Sinclair Poetry Prize from Evening Street Press.

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