Michael Salcman

Michael Salcman

MICHAEL SALCMAN is a physician, brain scientist and essayist on the visual arts. Dr. Salcman is former chairman of neurosurgery at the University of Maryland and past president of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. He is presently Special Lecturer in the Osher Institute at Towson University and lectures widely on art and the brain.

Recent poems appear in Alaska Quarterly Review, Harvard Review, The Hopkins Review, New Letters, Notre Dame Review, Ontario Review, Raritan, and New York Quarterly.

Michael Salcman is the author of four chapbooks and two collections: The Clock Made of Confetti (Orchises Press), nominated for The Poet’s Prize and a Finalist for The Towson University Prize in Literature, and The Enemy of Good Is Better (Orchises, 2011).

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A SHORT HISTORY OF PHARMACY

What would you think they were doing
faced with three women
gathering saffron
at the side of an altar in Thera, who
having plucked thick husks
of yellow crocus, collect stigma, paint
a bloody foot with balm, lay down
their gifts to a frescoed goddess
enthroned on the next wall
flanked by a blue monkey
and a griffin?
Is this the world’s first pharmacist,
she who commands them to grind
unguents and creams
thirty-five hundred years ago
as if making a spice or perfume?
Almost famous too if not
locked in this Attic room
by a volcanic eruption,
her image embalmed like her claim
of discovery
six centuries before the reign
of Ashurbanipal, that biblical king
in Jonah’s Nineveh,
in which great city a library of clay books
contained a botanical dictionary
from which you might draw potions
to calm sore hearts and make sleep come
from sprigs of myrtle, pulverized lily,
and poppy dissolved in beer.
King Ashurbanipal, evidently not much
of a medical pioneer
or even a seer like this goddess
was human like us, a plagiarist who divined
the hidden anodyne everywhere
now flooding our blood.

 
Hampden-Sidney Poetry Review: Winter, 2005

 
ALEXANDER’S SARCOPHAGUS

What they call Alexander’s sarcophagus sits
in a museum in the city of Istanbul—
a relic, a lie, a boon to the weary tourist
who shambles in and sees his hand glow
with purple light in a room full of coffins.

Here the dead and disinterred are raised up
on stone plinths:
ambassadors and generals,
and would-be saints hunt lions
ride chariots, throw spears, cast nets,
eternally wait for a king,
his bones and linens long ago shredded
when he died of dysentery in the desert
and still seemed a god.

In the West, empty graves abound.
Mozart’s not really buried beneath that stone
in Vienna; nameless, isn’t he somewhere in Prague?
And Poe’s monument in Baltimore
receives its annual gift of whiskey and roses
as if we knew whose bones lie beneath
the tomb on Greene street.

If it’s not Alexander
in this Turkish casket
decorated with a frieze as narrow as my belt,
I bet he’s pleased at the fuss
his long syllabic name makes
of our secret wish for an empty crypt.

 
Arabesques Review (Algeria): 2007 on-line
in THE ENEMY OF GOOD IS BETTER (Orchises), 2011

 
THE BARGELLO

It’s not what they meant, let me tell you,
when they set up Donatello among the wild beasts
gave him a cold chisel, a gouge
and a rasp to chew the marble away
from the hollow in the block,
thick tools to chase the hairs in his David
from the veins in ten tons of rock,
dragged by mules and men from a quarry
far away from Florence.
They brought it to him on rollers,
like a tomb for a pharaoh—see
what you can do with this—and he began
to chip away the stone in Goliath’s forehead
and polish it brown over many months
until it stood out in the open, proud
like a third eye swollen and bruised
or a great emerald in the mind.
No, it’s not what they wanted
but it’s what they got;
and they built a museum to house it and contain
this mighty eructation of tearing away.

 
Full Circle, A Journal of Poetry & Prose, No.3, 2003
in THE CLOCK MADE OF CONFETTI (Orchises), 2007

 
THE TRAIN NORTH

The train north passes poplar groves
stands of gray cypress and gnarled
olive trees, the ground whitened
by the vine from which Chianti flows
red in the Arno valley, until the fields
seem to shimmer red, white and green
like the tricolor flag of the countryside.
The train north passes Bologna,
Montagnana, Padova and Mestre,
rides over a narrow causeway and water
on both sides that erases the earth
in a dolphin gray sea, and gives view
to a small triangular flag nailed
to the sky, before it dumps us suddenly
in a world afloat on rumor and history.
There, in a palace of fifth degree,
nothing has changed in the paintings
for centuries
except the shape of the hats
and no one has ever boarded a train
heading south.

 
Notre Dame Review, No.14, summer 2002
in THE CLOCK MADE OF CONFETTI (Orchises), 2007

 
GOD’S TOYSHOP

If the poet of Achilles had known the people of Delos
he would have seen the nine lions carved
on the northwest coast
and made his horse of legend a cat
with a legendary smile.
But he didn’t.

I look for his wine-dark sea
off Mykinos and find only the clear glass
of tourmaline focusing the sun
like blue diamonds.

The streets have banished green:
blue terraces and red doors adorn white-washed walls
and streets too narrow for scooters and cars.
We order mousaka, dark olives and ouzo.

In the ancient stalls of Apollo
I feel the breath of thirty thousand souls
who once made homes of marble and sandstone here,
lifting second stories
on columns, lashing their boats.

Not one skeleton’s been found on Delos,
only the artifacts of God’s toyshop
reassembled by us, capitol to column, pillar to pier.

 
GRAFFITI

His shortest best-loved poem, his name,
found on this hill high above Cape Sounio
where the sea god’s temple stands on a cliff
between the Aegean and a touristy bay.

On the beaches below no one has declaimed
Childe Harold in years; still they crane to see
his scrawled B and the lesser letters trail out
from a dark and veiny wound in the upper block

of the second column on my right.
One can hardly sit anywhere on this rocky plain
without rubbing some name or date,
most the work of anonymous hands

and the autographs of vandals, all weathering the same
hungering for a fame even the god forgot.

 
WHAT THEY GAVE US

Sailing into the mouth of a volcano
you might think the Greeks have a lot to answer for:
for one thing, a love of cliffs and explosions,
earthquakes and eruptions and, most of all,
those white cubist houses with blue shutters
tumbling down the rim of the caldera.
Corbusier saw them in 1924
and we’ve been living like this ever since.
Welcome to Santorini.

They sometimes covered their white-washed walls
with frecoes of women (goddesses really)
threshing yellow crocus into medicine
and jungles filled with flying blue monkeys.
The guide in the museum tries to tell me
the painter must have seen such creatures in Africa
where animals by that name exist
but I’m not convinced.
The real monkeys are olive-colored, I answer
not sea-blue; like the Greeks,
I can only imagine where this idea came from
not being the first blue monkey to visit Thera.

 
All poems on this post: © Michael Salcman
Published with the permission of Michael Salcman