December 25, 2008

Review by Siobhan Watson

THE CLOCK MADE OF CONFETTI
by Michael Salcman

Orchises Press
P.O. Box 320533
Alexandria, VA
22320-4533
ISBN-13: 978-1-932535-11-2
104 pp., $14.95
http://mason.gmu.edu

Michael Salcman’s book of poetry, The Clock Made of Confetti, is an ambitious first collection and an admirable work. Much of his work has previously appeared in a number of national publications, and it is clear that Salcman is no poetry novice, as he deftly maneuvers from poem to poem. The book is broken into five sections, each loosely fitting one category or theme. Most poems are written in free verse, although there are the occasional form poems (or form-inspired poems, as in the poem “September Sonnet,” which is only loosely based on the traditional form). The subject of the poems seems to offer a sampling of Salcman’s vast knowledge; he writes about public figures, fellow poets and authors, works of art (such as Vermeer’s “The Rokeby Venus”), issues of family, and Jewish heritage.

As becomes evident in his often analytic approach to his varied subjects, Salcman is a man of science—a practicing neurosurgeon in Baltimore, MD. He often infuses very specific scientific images or words that, without the aid of the extensive “notes” section of the book, the reader would probably not understand. This is not to say that science is dealt with poorly; in several poems, the intricacies of the human body are beautifully described with detailed images so vivid that one can picture the subject. An example of this is “Small Bones,” in which Salcman brings to life the bones of the hand:

In my hand an opera sings:

navicular and lunate speak of a boat drifting too close

to a moon, hamate and capitate of the hook

that will seek the performer’s head

if he sings off-key…

The way he chooses to play with the sound of the scientific terms leads to dream-like images grounded in a real subject. It brings science to a middle ground, a place where even someone unacquainted with these specific bones, as I am, can see them and understand what Salcman is saying.

At times, however, it seems that Salman forgets about that middle ground, and ventures into language more blunt than necessary. In “This is Not a Rehearsal,” this kind of language falls flat and, quite frankly, interrupts the poem:

the inside of your arm, where a spot

between wrist and elbow

feels as warm as your pink genital flesh does.

I cannot help but think that any other phrase would have worked more effectively than “pink genital flesh” to convey the meaning desired. The high school science class feeling interrupts his otherwise well-crafted poem.

Salcman’s directness of language is an admirable stylistic choice that (previous example aside) works very effectively. In “Sitting Shmira,” for instance, Salcman describes a post-9/11 scene in New York City, without delving into long-winded lines about the tragedy as a lesser poet may have been tempted to do. He focuses on one particular scene, one facet of the event: the volunteer yeshiva girls sitting shmira with the unknown dead. (“Sitting shmira” is defined in Salcman’s notes as, “…a 24 hour ritual of watching over a body before burial; usually carried out by men.”)

Since no one knows

who’s in these trucks…

…all the uncommon inhabitants

of our one earth’s island

are assumed converted by fire and ash

into one Jew, one blood, one flesh.

The unification of the city is shown through this poignant example of communal care and preservation. The slant rhyme of “ash” and “flesh,” while not typical of the poem as a whole, seem to pair the two together in an unforgettable auditory way, perhaps leaving the reader with those two words echoing in his mind.

Another stirring example of the harmony of honed language and poignant narrative presents itself in “Katya’s Great Romance.” Salcman writes this poem about his Holocaust-survivor mother, Edith. There are four sections to the poem, each focusing on a facet of the narrative, from her start as an abandoned child in an alley to her reunion with Salcman’s father. I found myself entranced from its beginning, though the the ending line is particularly grabbing as well: “And because the dead do not/travel or read books or speak the unspeakable, she went with him to America.” In this one line, Salcman manages to bring the reader along for this simultaneously sad and hopeful new journey in his mother’s life.

To give the impression that Salcman’s book is solely a serious, grave read would surely be misleading; traces of humor are found throughout the book, in poems that are not altogether “funny” themselves. One such poem is “Wrestling in Brooklyn,” in which Salcman describes his aging father watching wrestling. He sets the tone early, starting with the line, “My father must be the oldest wrestling fan/in the world…” and goes on to describe the wrestlers (he insists, “I was nine…/and even I knew they were geeks…”). This is not simply a light-hearted poem, however; Salcman brings us back in the end with a dark reminder of his Holocaust-survivor father’s intent: “…he knew it was safe/to be foolish in Brooklyn.”

The Clock Made of Confetti demonstrates Salcman’s passage through the public sphere and the private, from the scientific to the surreal. Each poem, as well as the collection at large, brings the reader on a vivid, often personal and sometimes humorous journey. Salcman has harnessed his artistic, scientific, and historic knowledge, bringing them forth in a new, though by no means novice, collection, wrought with beautiful, concise images.

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Siobhan Watson, a New Jersey native, currently studies and works at Loyola College in Baltimore, MD.

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