Michael Salcman

Michael Salcman

MICHAEL SALCMAN: poet, physician and art historian, was chairman of neurosurgery at the University of Maryland and president of the Contemporary Museum. Poems appear in Arts & Letters, Barrow Street, Café Review, Hopkins Review, The Hudson Review, New Letters, and Smartish Pace. Books include The Clock Made of Confetti, The Enemy of Good is Better, Poetry in Medicine, his popular anthology of classic and contemporary poems on doctors, patients, illness & healing, A Prague Spring, Before & After, winner of the 2015 Sinclair Poetry Prize, and Shades & Graces: New Poems, inaugural winner of The Daniel Hoffman Legacy Book Prize in 2020. Necessary Speech: New & Selected Poems was published by Spuyten Duyvil in 2022.


They didn’t know it was him—
the old man in the street, hit by a tram
at the intersection of Gran Via
and Carrier Bailen,
had no wallet or identification,
his stonemason’s apron
covered in blood, his beard flecked
with concrete chips, his face dotted
with bits of colored stone
and broken bottles from the street.
He lingered two days,
his broken ribs bent into his lung,
before he was buried behind his cathedral,
its spires shaped like cypress trees.
When the anarchists came
they blew up his models
and burned his blueprints,
and opened the grave of his benefactor,
scattering a rich man’s bones like dice,
until more than half were lost
in the vineyards of Catalonia.
Because Gaudi worked with his hands
they forgave his piety and left him alone;
of Lorca, that sodomite
not even an empty grave
not even a wrist bone remains.

First published in Front Range Review, 2005
First collected in Michael Salcman, The Clock Made of Confetti, Orchises Press, 2007
[Nominated for The Poets’ Prize]
Re-collected in Michael Salcman, Necessary Speech: New & Selected Poems, Spuyten Duyvil, 2022


The Janiculum is a hill
Where the wind is puerile free
And green as the sky
Seen through the end of a cocktail tumbler.
From any terrace you can sit
And feel this wind reach out
And graze your face
Its wet gauze soaked in the calm
Peaked caps, lazily tossed
By the warm Italianate sea.
Last year, the air itself,
Sucked out so thin
It hardly made for a single breath,
Hung like a drape held taut
Across the heart of the blue-eyed breeze,
Slack with the odor of history.
There are no crowds upon the hill
Nor arms raised in grim salute—
The clay statues, standing mute,
Bleed in almost human way
Their backs to the hill
And classic faces to the sea….

(February 1972- June 1973)


In my reverie,
the cool Tuscan air slides down my neck
your damp brow and bare breast
moist with early summer, wet
with expectation; you breathe slowly
above a white scoop of roses
stitched blue and red onto your dress
and a thin band of Florentine gold
around your neck,
bought on the Ponte Vecchio
twenty summers ago, when our daughter
hung like a great melon between your hips
and I stood alone at the Arno.
Too poor to buy you earrings then,
then out of love with you, and after—me,
when it didn’t seem we’d ever see
these narrow streets together,
and I would never see this bodega again.
Now standing outside the door with you,
on a day cooler than I remember,
the weather slowly changes in its airy ocean
like the heart does—
unknowing in its motion—
and your neck is bare.
When we hear the bell in the bodega ring,
you don’t take my hand.
Perhaps you’ve lost it—
the necklace I mean,
it hasn’t circled your throat in years,
not home, not here, not now as the shop door
closes and you rush across the bridge
in a bright blue pantsuit,
not stopping once for sentiment,
not searching in my shop of wonders
where a goldsmith wished me a life of luck
just twenty summers ago.

First published: Urbanite Magazine, January 2007
First collected: Michael Salcman, The Enemy of Good is Better (Orchises, Washington, 2011)
Reprinted: Necessary Speech: New & Selected Poems (Spuyten Duyvil, New York, 2022)


We came ashore at the end of a narrow strait
watching tourists stroll the stony paths
of an outdoor museum

where thirty thousand souls once worshipped and played,
coming together in trade or else the Delian games.
I sweat a drop or two into the sea—

it’s noon in beauty’s hell and emptiness everywhere.
No one born on Delos was less than a god
so gravid women were taken off before making a mess.

Even the dead and dying weren’t left
but removed to graves off shore
before death might spoil Apollo’s perfect realm

with putrefaction. Only his acolytes dwelled
in what they called the brightest spot on earth,
an island like a lens,

where nothing lives today but the past,
its columns and houses in perfect rows,
and five stone lions guard the sacred lake

in which Apollo rose and his sister’s temple sank
without a trace. A single column marks her place
like a bone her brother threw away.

First published: River Styx, issue no.88, 2012
First collected: Shades & Graces: New Poems (Spuyten Duyvil, New York, 2020)
[inaugural winner Daniel Hoffman Legacy Book Prize]
Reprinted: Necessary Speech: New & Selected Poems (Spuyten Duyvil, New York, 2022)

For other contributions by Michael Salcman, please follow the link below:

Poetry in this post: © Michael Salcman
Published with the permission of Michael Salcman