I first became aware of the critic Michael Salcman, reviewing with startling sensitivity, erudition and generosity, a little known artist-poet, the critique probably more interesting than the thing itself. “Where does he come from?” we ask when reading his work. Now with his collection of poems, The Enemy of Good is Better, (2010) we can all appreciate the mature poet who views and reviews the world in personally wrought terms combining sensitivity with distance. This worldview is leavened with underlying anger and melancholic generosity.
Salcman’s deep-sources are available to us throughout this attractively slim volume. His principle influences are medicine and post-War Jewish culture. Of course, both of these combine sensitivity with distance. Anger with generosity.
This collection of normally concise and concrete narrational lyrics feels like notes taken on a soulful search.
What are we to make of the title-line, “the enemy of the good is better”? In my imagination, MS is musing on a modern and post-modern dilemma. If it used to be the case that “the perfect is the enemy of the good” (Voltaire, in the flush of the Enlightenment), then today, with hope for the perfect dead, even the better is our enemy. The state of affairs has degenerated and even a plan of measured improvement thwarts what would have been good. Sure enough, in the poem which MS takes also as his book title (found in section IV) he uses a complicated voice — “You’ve gone back and forth dozens of times”, it begins — in which a super-ego addresses his ego, understanding while condemning the protagonist for attempting a master-surgery and tragically, or disappointingly, botching the project.
Remember that the legitimating goal, for the Jew, is not to be perfect, but to be good.
For Salcman, that project is in itself necessary, if maddeningly not necessarily divine, and is certainly often at odds with the world.
His soul is seared by the evil that touched it fundamentally without destroying it. With time, the Shoah has lost specificity but not power. Memorable MS lines go:
Less a calculus of breath than perverted fate
How often we exhale our loves and fill our lungs with hate
That said, the poet seeks in a Scholastic tradition some nexus of redemption and the real, as when he writes:
truth … the prayer toward a clouded sky.
And he finds meaning, if neither truth nor redemption, in art, his own poetic and also his beloved plastic art. Take one of his most beautiful poems, which is about or to the source of poetry itself: “Mnemosyne’s Daughter: A Portrait”.
They never knew you but set you down
as precisely as a shot frees a bird
from the sky: no sentiment allowed.
Every writer’s frown escapes from your smile,
Muse-like too, fine paintings inspire at least a fifth of the 64 poems here collected. (M Salcman is a dedicated art critic.) These animated reveries based on oils (like in a very different vein his sailing poems) are consistent threads in his rich poetic tissue. The dreamy painting-poems make us think of Auden’s landmark “Musee des Beaux Arts”, John Hollander’s “The Lady of the Castle” comfortable in this wonderful sub-genre. Here is the voice of the dog lightheartedly inspired by Matisse’s exquisite, warm image “Interior with dog” (see www.flickr.com/photos/mbell1975/4572291225/ ):
I’m only half-asleep so I know you’re standing there
wondering if I’m asleep. Nope.
The mirror-ness of mimesis is its skin, and at its heart, Salcman’s is a poetry of confession, honesty applied to his self. MS often thinks about the body from the inside out; there are as many references to the guts as to the outward human form. Sex is finally lust, even in its love-fraught and love-lost physicality. The poet’s energy goes into conveying the God-like excitement and human terror of the operating room. Recurrently, Salcman contemplates the preserved ancient dead (like the mummies in “The Long-Ago Dead”) — that interesting state where the inside and outside converge — and, as in his “Alexander’s Sarcophagus”, very much in the super-historic spirit of a Shelley contemplating the human skull in his hand.
Salcman’s revision of 19th Century sensibility is, itself, distinctly post-Romantic. His versifying is free, rhythmically lush with an iambic skip. Hear:
On the drive from Glenenden to Florence,
Clusters of yellow grapes on the hillsides
Flash bright as the median stripe on the highway.
His reference group, named, is from prose, poetry, and critical social theory:
Bellow, O’Hara, Sontag, Adorno; from this complex perspective he surveys Western culture (not just, but including the 19th C. Whitman and Melville, the physician-writer Chekhov) and even the non-Western (Maya).
This, he does with sensible identity and scientific distance. One of the longer poems is a reflection on Richard Kuklinski, a serial murderer and mob hit man with Frankenstein-like overtones (wanton killing on command from a superior). The Nazi parallel is clear. Indeed, Salcman says we are all left
to wonder how far that gene had come to symbolize an age.
Nevertheless Salcman, like most not-quite-secular Jews, also conveys the spark of wonder at the universe, as scientist and history-lover. He is in the tradition of those belying the constructed chasm between science and poetry (from Einstein to John Hollander), while not quite swallowing historical progress. I quote Salcman on Leonardo Pisano who in 1202 did calculations until
…He discovered a series of digits
converging to a golden mean
and Salcman concludes
It must have seemed a miracle then—
It still does now,
An enquiring mind with a seeker’s fervor, Salcman concludes this collection of poems, and the various dialectically maybe-progressing reflections mentioned, with a return to the topic of absent historicity, or the fight against meaninglessness. But the image of the nameless slaughtered haunting the earlier texts is transformed finally into the image of a painter whose name — and namesake — are both lost; the title of the poem is “Follower of the Master of the Female Half-Lengths”. S/he finds perhaps the best of all situations, a fame which
has lit your face with the grace of anonymity.
You finish reading Salcman thinking you are quite a bit like him.