Michael Salcman’s Shades and Graces, Reviewed by David Eberhardt and Dan Cuddy

Salcman Cover artMichael Salcman, Shades and Graces, Spuyten Duyvil Publishing (June 1, 2020) ISPN-10: 195241914X ISBN-13: 978-1952419140, 110 pages

Michael Salcman’s new book of poetry, Shades and Graces: New Poems, from Spuyten Duyvil in New York, is the inaugural winner of the Daniel Hoffman Legacy Book Prize named for the former US Poet Laureate (1973-1974). Salcman has written 8 other books of poetry and 6 books on science and medicine. He is truly a modern-day Renaissance man, as the Series Preface by Lee Slonimsky states. Dr. Salcman is equally at home in the sciences and in the arts and humanities. It isn’t a cursory acquaintance. His knowledge is wide, detailed, and deeply studied in both realms of our supposedly opposed cultures. This most recent book of poetry displays that. However, Michael Salcman, a retired neurosurgeon, a collector of contemporary art, and an adept practitioner of the art of poetry, is a very accessible writer for the average intelligent and educated reader, amazingly so. Yes, sometimes a reader must “look up” a reference, an allusion, an image, but what the poet writes is not arcane. Reading the poems will demonstrate that.

David Bergman, poet and emeritus Professor of English at Towson University, has written a personal and perceptive critical Introduction to the poems in Shades and Graces. Bergman discusses the book in terms of Salcman’s life span:

Shades and Graces, in which even the eternal must carry the burden of mortality, is a book that demands a rejiggering of the life-expectancy tables. It exists in a poetic space that is new……


Bergman goes on to say

……Salcman acknowledges that the general impulse in one’s seventies and eighties is to “practice denial,” to downsize, to become more modest. This is also a bit of a joke. Anyone who has been to Salcman’s house knows it contains one of the most vibrant collections of contemporary art, a collection that can hardly be said to “practice denial.” No, it’s not denial that we want; it is to have our prayers for rapture answered. And even if the desire for rapture is unfulfilled, desiring rapture is itself rapturous enough…..”

I have discovered two types of poems in Shades and Graces: Kafkaesque and Emersonian. Salcman puts the following epigraph by Kafka at the beginning of the first section of his book- “The meaning of life is that it stops.” Life for Jews in Pilsen, where Salcman was born, and Prague was hard in Kafka’s time. You can visit the Kafka museum there with its tribute to torture and claustrophobia. But I would place next to Kafka’s grim quote the following bit of cheer from Emerson:

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of the intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the beauty in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that one life has breathed easier because you lived here. This is to have succeeded.”

It helps to read Shades and Graces in relation to these two opposing mindsets, although certainly, Michael Salcman’s creations are not stereotypically defined by such abstractions. There is a breadth and breath to his work. However, the two contradictory mindsets can sometimes be found within a single poem. For example, “The Duke of Flatbush” is tinged with elegiac nostalgia, a tribute to Duke Snider of the Dodgers and the mostly carefree existence of a child, as well as a darker, almost absurdist memory of childhood, the grief and worry of being stricken by polio and the only partial recovery. All of this is in one comparatively short poem. “Pinball Wizard”, the next poem in the book, has a child’s exuberance in it, recaptured so well by the poet’s words, later tempered by the permanent deficits left by the disease he suffered with.

The very next poem continues the theme of a game or sports experience, but is distinctly colored by the Kafkaesque sensibility that filters, that dominates the action. Since it is only 12 lines, I will quote “In the E.R.” in its entirety:

In the E.R. we stab the lung
with a scalpel like a small harpoon,
sometimes the blood comes spurting out
sometimes the face swells up like a moon.

We spit them out, the cyclist who hits
a pit without his helmet on,
the toy boy who crosses against the green
his I-Pod blasting You Be Cool.

I miss the rushing through the halls.
I miss the whining of the saws.
I miss the drama of Shock and Trauma.
I miss the blooding of my claws.

Shades and Graces consists of four sections: I-Life Stories, II-Quandaries & Lies, III-Father Sleeping, and IV-Aesthetic Bursts. The book opens with “Ten Reflections on Ramon Gomez de la Serna.” There is a stylistic parallel with a later poem in Section IV, “Seven or Eight Reflections on Erik Satie.” Ramon Gomez may be unfamiliar to American readers, Satie a little less so, but the internet, Wikipedia, at the very least, can give the reader some background and a fuller appreciation of the poems; nevertheless, such information is not needed for the receptive and perceptive lover of poetry, and Salcman provides a useful section of brief Notes. His poems create the aesthetic experience, not the explanatory prose. From the first, the “Ten Reflections on Ramon Gomez de la Serna” gives us just a taste of Salcman’s interaction with past artistic experience; each short poem in the suite is headed with or titled by a Ramon Gomez quote on which Salcman riffs:

III The q is the p coming back from a walk
Like you I have lived my life backwards
Old when I was young and young when I am old.
You left Madrid and I left New York.
I drink in the backwaters of my new ancient city.

All of the poems (but for “Reflections on Erik Satie”) discussed so far are from Section I. There are many elegies for family, friends, artists and other writers, as well as a variety of interesting life experiences, which inspired the poems. Fellow- writers may appreciate “The Lost Notebook.” Near the conclusion of the first section, “Thanks for Not Calling” returns to a Kafkaesque mood:

Art’s a type of entertainment, a diversion
from the certainty of death, that’s all;
and once we know it stops working.

In Section II- Quandaries & Lies, the poems appeal to both the intellect and the heart. Existential problems are presented. “Metaphor,” carrying an epigraph from Harold Bloom, Arshile Gorky’s biography corrected in another poem, and expressive works of art featured in ekphrastic poems like “Fire Hose for Theaster Gates” (re: his sculpture in The Event Of Race Riot, 2011), and “Ambiguity,” inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, are springboards for an examination of the perplexities in which we live. Then, there is the poem about a dying child. It touches the heart. It is called “Medulloblastoma” after the most common malignant brain tumor in children. The last stanza reads:

They are the first to know—
their eyes glimmering with knowledge.
It’s useless to tiptoe around their beds
to whisper and tell them lies.
Their dying is slow
and they see it from a long way off.

There are poems with Baltimore and Chesapeake Bay settings in both of the first two sections, poems like “Open Casket,” “The Old Boat” and “Mobtown,” the last a poem about the strange discovery made during the construction of Oriole Park.

Section III-“Father Sleeping” is devoted to the longest poem in the volume and concerns the death at age 99 of Salcman’s father. Sections of verse alternate with found passages of prose from Wikipedia. The poem is very instructive medically. It is also dramatic and tender. It is the high point in Shades and Graces; often a prose poem feel and yet undeniably poetry- rhyme used indirectly. Here are the first two of its eight sections:

Locus coeruleus, the blue spot in the brain
where a bright dot of pigment controls our mortal waking,
where all that raveled coil’s unraveled by day
and we greet the sunshine as fate, kismet burning.
The legends say no tears for the dying
lest you impede them on their way to heaven,
my eyes so dry at your bedside they cancel my yearning
that you stay. For this boy
father’s the prime subject, his approval joy
and all else dross.
The only history the boy knows is in this body,
its loss definitively loss.

Kidneys still working, a silenced monitor and soft sweet breaths
make almost no sound in the universe.
Days go by with only moments of agitation
that slump into rest
and the rare round of grunts in a language of mystery and allusion,
half Hungarian, half Venusian,
as if lungs so far underwater
could manage only deeply aquatic words
like a whale feeling its way to a distant shore.

Restfully he lies beyond distress, never sick
for more than three days at a time.
How could this happen he asks
not yet oblivious to his rapid decline
nor fooled by our hopes for his recovery.
That’s how you made ninety-nine, I reply
but the past six weeks still startle

as if Death were a grim German soldier who’d come
to his hiding place and noted the mark of the Jew on his face.
We try shaking him awake but forego the pain
I once gave my patients: the thumbnail pinch, the sternal rub
and stiffly watch others stick him with probes as if
there’s finally an answer to life’s indignity.
No dear friend, mentor in all things, there’s no alternative.
Let go your stiff arm, the bent leg release.

Aesthetic Bursts is the fourth and final section. Here Salcman includes a couple of poems descriptive of Baltimore locales, such as “Howard Street Rhapsody”, and to a lesser extent, “The Blizzard”, as well as poems in other locales, such as “Pictures At the Century Bar” set in New York, or the island of Delos in “The Cult of Beauty”. As one might infer from the title of this section, the subject matter of the poems is often art in one form or another. There are unique views expressed. For example, “When Bach Was Street” is a cultural laugh riot in a book that is very, very serious most of the time. Though Death is, in a sense, a ghostwriter that the poet calls upon in this book, the poems are full of life. “In-Painting” is about art restoration, a true vision of life and its imperfections. When death takes center stage in the poems, the language is alive. Art gives life a stay of execution. In “The Marled Beam,” Nicholas Hughes, the son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, comes back to life. However, death or the void is ever-present in this book. Lines from the concluding poem, the Emersonian “Winter Poem,” manage to achieve a cultural
and emotional stasis:

All was darkness before the word and the void opened up
to the light. I don’t know where to go at my age but onwards
towards the light and embrace it. Today is someone’s birthday
and someone else’s anniversary and a day of remembrance.

What finally are the lessons on death we get from Shades and Graces? What is is made clearer; that’s all and that’s enough. Salcman does not re-interpret death but brings us closer to it, perhaps a sort of acceptance or understanding. His vision takes us closer than the dread growing inside of us. The poet is not going to play the Rabbi!

So all will be well and nothing will complain.
The low winter sun rakes the field and the room;
in the winter’s light I hear the silent growing thing.

© Michael Salcman, David Eberhardt, 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 & Letters, Harvard Review, Hopkins Review, Hudson Review, New Letters, Notre Dame Review and Poet Lore. His previous collection, A Prague Spring, Before & After, won the 2015 Sinclair Poetry Prize.

David Eberhardt was born March 26, 1941. As a peace protester, he was incarcerated at Lewisburg Federal Prison in 1970 for 21 months for pouring blood on draft files with Father Philip Berrigan and two others to protest the Vietnam War. He is retired after 33 years of work in the criminal injustice system as a Director of Offender Aid and Restoration at the Baltimore City Jail. He has published three books of poetry: The Tree Calendar, Blue Running Lighs, and Poems from the Website, Poetry in Baltimore. He has completed a peace movement memoir: For All the Saints, a Protest Primer influence by Dillard, Thoreau, Nabokov, Mailer, Agee, Thomas, Lecky, Capote and Cousteau – available from Amazon. Mozela9@comcast.net and on Facebook.

Dan Cuddy is currently an editor of the Loch Raven Review. Most recently he has had poems published in the End of 83, Broadkill Review, Welter, Bhubaneswar Review, the Twisted Vine Literary Journal, the Pangolin Review.

Back to Main Loch Raven Review Site