As William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, the past is never dead. "It's not even past." In his new Sinclair Poetry Prize–winning collection, Michael Salcman demonstrates this in spades. His family, the city of Prague, the entire world are continually haunted by events that to an outsider might appear as dusty data in a forgotten History book but which live in his imagination more closely than the vein in his throat. Born in postwar Prague and raised in Brooklyn, Salcman has never escaped the shadow of the Holocaust in which so many of his Jewish family perished. Nor has Prague escaped the brutality and oppression that have characterized its thousand-year existence.
Indeed, the elasticity of time — "the slippery eel of history," as Salcman calls it in his "Prologue" — is a major theme of A Prague Spring, Before and After. From the image of the backwards–running clock on the Jewish town hall tower to Einstein lecturing on bent time in Prague, the supple, pliant nature of time recurs again and again in this collection. This is captured nowhere so poignantly as in the poem entitled "In the Present Future Tense," a poem about his uncle in a hospital on Long Island, the blue numbers "on the instep of his arm" all the reminder anybody needs about the presence of the past. In the poem, the uncle confuses three generations of Salcmans "in his brain's blender / starved for electricity." And as Salcman tells us in his essay on Prague that concludes this book, "Czechs have no desire to be vaccinated against the past."
The narrative structure of A Prague Spring is, in fact, all about return — to the past, to Prague. The fifth sonnet in his "Prague Suite" concludes with the line:
a man discovering himself in late middle age.
This discovery is the apotheosis of this collection. The book consists of five parts, beginning in Prague and, like a scorpion biting its tail, ending in Prague. The opening section is called Spring, 1944, ten poems, most of them fourteen–liners which tell the heart–wrenching story of his family, focusing mostly on his father, during the Holocaust. The final poem in the sequence — "(Alfred)" — contains the observation that his father
never explained why the world has no pity for the living
Two of the poems in the Spring, 1944 section contain the lines that are also the book's epigraph and which Salcman attributes to his cousin Arnold on the occasion of his 80th birthday:
When you knock on the door of strangers,
there are three possibilities: they will send you away,
they will take you in, they will report you.
Part II, Before America, includes some elegies for various victims, including Walter Benjamin and Max Jacob, and a stunning, five–page poetic overview of the Holocaust entitled "1942, An Almanac," a poem addressed to his cousin that concludes with the lines:
But know, no truth is a proof as strong
as the lies of poetry; your memory of that year is mine.
I bring you looted treasure: History's twisted snakes.
Surely this is one of the true values and purposes of poetry: truth. Capital T Truth. Elsewhere, too, Salcman calls this book an "exorcism." So be it.
In "Who Will Read This?" from the same section, Salcman writes:
Rub a finger across the furniture
of the world and that thin layer of dust you feel is hatred
of the Jews, the blood libel of the Vatican,
the gospel of the Baptist pulpit, the song of the minaret.
Part III, After, is devoted principally to Salcman's youth in Brooklyn, and the echoes of the Holocaust reverberate throughout. As well as "In the Future Present Tense," this section includes an elegy for Simon Wisenthal, "Everything but the Ashes," and the moving poem, "Explaining the Wound," about the tragedy and trauma that inform the poet's verse, picking up on the old Hemingway saw (and developed by Malcolm Cowley) that writers are all "wounded."
Then in Part IV, Spring, 2007, Salcman returns to the country of his birth, the city that haunts his dreams. For years, before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the "Velvet Revolution" that brought the poet Vaclev Havel to power, Salcman had not dared return for the very real fear that he would be taken captive. He finally makes the return at the age of sixty — and the same old ghosts are still there.
This section also contains the "Prague Suite," a series of eight sonnets on Prague — its ghosts, its wounds, the Charles Bridge, the clock that runs backwards, and the Golem among them.
Part V, Spring, 1968, contains the lengthy essay, "How I Missed the Prague Spring, a Sort of Memoir," an exposition on Prague, its history and its challenges. The "Prague Spring" in the book title refers to the 1968 uprising in the same year of turmoil worldwide, when Alexander Dubcek, first secretary of the Czech Communist Party, briefly liberated Czechoslovakia, before the Soviet Union came down on it like a ton of bricks. The term was as hopeful and idealistic as "Arab Spring" would be a couple of generations later.
While presenting an objective, poetic view of the country of his birth, A Prague Spring certainly is an exorcism of demons and a recovery of loved ones, not the least his cousin Magda, who in her life met Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death himself, at Auschwitz. In a closing poem, "First Love," Salcman remembers her with an aching, tender love. But this is not a true exorcism, for Salcman, like all Czechs, has "no desire to be vaccinated against the past."