HIS NAME MEANT LIGHT
—i.m. Tom Lux (1946-2017)
Lux as in shining on or revelatory,
not just insubstantial photons, also fleet footed
as in how he ran the bases or scooped balls
in the outfield, not evanescent.
In his poems obsolescent and/or ignored things
treated as if they were people:
the virgule for example or a mouth full of rotten teeth,
but never treated people like objects.
He gave so much respect he would curse you
out of kindness even if he said you had the gift.
So an elegy titled Stinkface might have done
better, he’d laugh a little,
giving fate a look you can smell
when I did something as stupid as step
on my cat, startled by the news
of his unexpected death, two creatures howling
and bereft, shocked how sickness had crept
into those mighty lungs of declamation
and stilled those ropey-veined arms.
In center field where I still see Tom booming
every pitch against a stone wall
dark clouds descend. Somewhere else no doubt
he’s hitting them out in right where Frost patrols
or to left where Emerson manicures the grasses;
he loved their mottoes of excellence
and was ecumenical about most subjects except
the Shoah about which he felt all poems
weak or strong deserved a roomful’s respect
and baseball, the only literary sport.
Born that first year after the world’s worst war
neither one of us ever forgot its darkness,
one he fought with a joyous gene that twisted
into existence on the banks of the Moldau long ago
when Czech forests were young.
I always thought he’d made it up, his name Lux
a perfect antidote to naive doubt
in the grandson of a Bohemian pig farmer
and our bright lamp of illumination, Lux Aeterna.
By the time you finish reading this
the one-legged man will no longer climb the stairs
with a gym bag in his hand.
Before you remember what mise-en-scène means
or have time to look it up
the man who reads poetry on the machines will be gone.
Everyday fills me with expectations of a singularity
like a red giant exploding or worm-hole.
Even in the humblest corner of the world
we had a muscled dwarf with a photographic memory
and a runner without calves; we worshipped a goddess
who never sweated and never married.
When I’m gone no one will be left to cut you off
smiling, I’m on the last line and really can’t talk.
THE CAT IN THE PACHYSANDRA
He thinks the world’s a wonder
stalking in his jungle, spears of grass
taller than he is, tonguing their moisture.
The cat takes a sniff of white azalea,
prickling his nose with half-shorn blossoms,
marches along on a leash
tethered to my shadow. A few rushing cars
and motorcycle blasts make him flinch
as does my silhouette—it looms behind him
like Goya’s Saturn eating his children.
The cat knows from jaws, snaps when I try
to bring him inside after a final saunter,
bellies down on the flagstones
like a war protestor. I’ve got to pull him along
when his fur rises to the smell of home,
whiskers twitching by the French doors
at the garden side, spooked by his own reflection.
Marching through forsythia like a lion
Claude pokes his antique head into the sunshine,
ears swiveling to the love songs of cardinals
and chickadees chasing in the trees.
Well, they’re love songs to me—but he’s all business
hunting in the big city, a flat-faced survivor
launching a dive into the pachysandra.
LUXE, CALME et VOLUPTÉ (1904)
Famous for dreaming of art as an easy armchair
Matisse didn’t assume it could wash away
a tired worker’s troubles at the end of a terrible day.
That anxious businessman of his imagination,
who expected a painting of a cow on the wall
full of ‘balance, …purity and serenity’,
with a ‘soothing, calming influence on the mind’,
must have been a little surprised and disappointed
to have his brains blown away
by blood-red pipers playing crimson flutes
and a blue nude writhing against a Moroccan sun.
No protection from this by a fine Bordeaux or even rum.
His bright colors and twisted limbs were not as advertised—
a sure cure for mental fatigue and physical exhaustion.
Luxe, calme et volupté—his motto and dream
of earthly paradise, misunderstood by many to mean
art was easy, as if Matisse were poor Gauguin in Tahiti
or a North African Berber designing rugs and making drapes
in a marketplace and trading for chickens. Worse
Picasso’s coterie of friends called him a decorator,
a slur used by those still deceived by our earthly realm
of reliably brown tree trunks and a child’s blue sky
in which a woman’s right arm was just as long
as the one she wore on the other side. Tant pis on them!
© Michael Salcman
Michael Salcman, poet, neurosurgeon and art historian, formerly chair of neurosurgery at the University of Maryland and president of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. Author of six medical textbooks and seven collections of verse, including The Clock Made of Confetti (2007) and A Prague Spring, Before & After (2016), winner of the 2015 Sinclair Poetry Prize, he is editor of Poetry in Medicine (2015), a widely used anthology of classic and contemporary poems on doctors, patients, illness and recovery.