Michael Salcman’s Necessary Speech New & Selected Poems, Reviewed by Dan Cuddy

Michael Salcman Necessary Speech New & Selected Poems, Spuyten Duyvil. New York City 2022, ISBN: 978-1-956005-12-7 305 pages $25.00

Necessary Speech is really a Collected Poems of Michael Salcman. The book is a treasure trove of Salcman’s acute sensibility examining his many interests and experiences over the years. Salcman is Baltimore’s Renaissance Man. Primarily a poet or A retired brain surgeon? He is also a collector and connoisseur of contemporary art. His family was from Czechoslovakia, and many of his aunts and uncles were victims of the Holocaust. He is an aficionado of classical music. He is a student of history. He uses his background and interests to fashion unique poems made with both metaphoric and linguistic skills.

Below is a poem called “Self Portrait As Serf after Matisse (1900-1908).” Though the particular art objects in the poem may be unfamiliar to the reader, they are very accessible by computer and the Matisse sculpture and Rodin’s Walking Man sculpture are images you can search for. This adds another dimension that can be compared to the words and Salcman’s interpretation which makes its own statement. Here is the magnificent poem:

Serf—not a name I would have chosen for this mighty bronze:
Neither helot nor semi-slave nor villein bound to the earth
But a man striding forth as the dawn of a new age

Besieged by science and Cézanne.
In an early snap the bearded Serf stands naked to his labor
Like his master does, artist and statue looking much the same.

Two unchained Stankovites laboring, Matisse took his alter ego
From Rodin’s Walking Man, first hiring the master’s
Favorite model, Bevilaqua, for a portrait in paint.

From paint to clay he transposed the flat patches of color
Of one into the muscled blocks of the other,
edges angled and cut by a palette knife sharp as light,

the new man of a new century bricked up like an artillery tower
or battering ram with legs attached.
In an eight-year campaign, the plaster remained uncast

Until one day, in a fit of malice, Matisse snapped off its arms
And watched his deformed monster grow in strength
Like ancient Venus erupting in beauty after her amputation.

A few terms may be unfamiliar to average readers but they are readily accessible as Salcman draws his imagery from history. The 21st-century computer is a great tool for researching what the poet remembered and built into his poem. Bevilaqua is Cesar Pignatelli. The Stankovites are a worker’s Movement that originated in Russia. I will leave it to the reader to follow up on his curiosity as to these allusions. Michael Salcman communicates with his readers but you have to meet him halfway. Everything to appreciate the poem is in the poem, including the truly irrational, the transcendent creation of the art object. The last two lines of the poem express the miraculous.

The book is 305 pages long. The first section, which consists of four parts is a selection of new poems unique to this book, though some have been published in literary journals. There are a variety of subjects. The book opens with the brilliantly serious but humorous poem “Because.” A few titles that follow identify intriguing poems  “By the Way What Time Is It In Prague. Milena?”; the very personal poem “Visiting MY Father in His Final Illness”, which describes a bit of New York; Three Days in Germany is interesting, especially if you are at all familiar with Heidelberg and Frankfurt. There is the long poem “The Hours” which closes the second section of new poems titled “Plague Poems & The Hours.” “The Hours” takes you into the poet’s life in the past and now that he is retired. It is an excellent read. The third section of new poems is about art and artists and poetry and the poets. The poem “His Name Means Light” is about Salcman’s good friend Thomas Lux. The poem “Clement Greenberg, Living in My Head Rent Free” is entertaining as well as illuminating about the famous art critic and art itself.

The fourth section of new poems begins with this short gem titled “Event Horizon.”

There’s no such thing as eternity
When the sun explodes there goes Leonardo
And the Fifth Avenue Library
And all those unsold piles of books
In my basement.
Will anybody be reading the Bible
On Alpha Centauri
Or looking at a Picasso sent by rocket?
Who will grieve for the oceans or the ants
And those little countries no bigger than rocks
We never learned the names of?
No more bucket lists and no more buckets.
Just an empty space filled with humility
And a master builder looking for a switch.

Titles in this 4th section: “in the Morgue”; “Heard in a Museum: John Cage Sonatas”; “Baltimore’s East Side”;” Blown Up”; “lies Before Retirement”; “Wounds”; “The Empty House;”

After the new poems, there are selected poems, a generous selection from Salcman’s first four books. He begins with a quote from George Orwell WHY I WRITE:

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle,
 like a long bout with some painful illness.
One should never undertake such a thing, if one
Were not driven on by some demon one can
Neither resist or understand.

Luckily for us, Michael Salcman was stricken by a demon a number of times. The four books are ‘The Clock Made of Confetti”  (2007); ”The Enemy of Good Is Better (2011); “A Prague Spring, Before & After” (2016; and “Shades and Graces” (2020)

“Necessary Speech” is a reading adventure. The work is always artfully written. Many emotions are summoned by the variety of poems. All types of experience are presented. Dr. Salcman has looked death in the face. He has internally talked with masterpieces of art. He knows love, both as one who gives himself to his beautiful wife and as the recipient of love from her. He has delved into his family history as immigrants to America and as Czech Jews. He has unearthed the truth of the Holocaust or Shoah. His poems weep for and memorialize all the victims of the horrible Hitler years. There is beauty—-he has both an eye and an ear for beauty, and the sharpness of the intellect. He is a poet we can learn from. His work makes his readers’ lives richer and more fully human.

© Michael Salcman and Dan Cuddy

Michael Salcman, poet, physician and art historian, was born in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, came to the United States in 1949 and trained in neurosurgery at Columbia University. Formerly chair of neurosurgery at the University of Maryland and president of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore, he is the author of six medical textbooks and seven previous collections of poems, including The Clock Made of Confetti, nominated for the Poets Prize, and The Enemy of Good is Better. He edited Poetry in Medicine, a standard anthology of classic and contemporary poems about doctors, patients, illness and healing. His poems have appeared in numerous journals including Arts & LettersHarvard ReviewHopkins ReviewHudson ReviewNew LettersNotre Dame Review and Poet Lore. His previous collection, A Prague Spring, Before & After, won the 2015 Sinclair Poetry Prize.

Dan Cuddy is currently an editor of the Loch Raven Review. In the past he was a contributing editor of the Maryland Poetry Review and an editor for Lite: Baltimore’s Literary Newspaper. He has had a book of poetry published “Handprint on the Window” in 2003,. Most recently he has had poems published in the End of 83, Broadkill Review, the Pangolin Review, Madness Muse Press, Horror Sleaze Trash, the Rats’s Ass Review, Roanoke Review, the Amethyst Review and, Gargoyle.

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