Napoleon’s Penis / Not My Cousin Magda Says Goodnight to the Children / Mommy Baby, Daddy Maybe / Poor Richard /

by Michael Salcman

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Drawing by Santiago Ramon y Cajal. Public Domain.

Napoleon’s Penis

If history’s written by the victors, as some historians say,
its dislocations are caused by priests and valets,

those inadequate functionaries who attend to the great
while robbing the body or stealing coins from the plate.

Take Bonaparte (himself a practitioner of grand theft)
buried in the Pantheon when not much was left,

his servant Antommarchi stole both stomach and heart
while a priest sawed away at a more intimate part;

Vignali administered the Emperor’s last rites
and amputated his penis the very same night.

His member ended in a jar on an urologist’s desk
but measured against Rasputin’s didn’t live up to the test.

And I pray Francis Xavier, a missionary from Spain
had no experience of post-mortem pain

when his arm was deposited in a reliquary in Rome
and the hand divided between two other homes.

Without the Inquisition, Galileo would find it truly bizarre
that the thumb he once held up to measure a star

was detached at his death and a fifth lumbar bone excised—
as if his proof were disproved and his knowledge despised.

And lest we forget, poets are no more immune
not practiced in practicality when not singing a tune,

poor Shelley entrusted his heart to a friend
but no one received it when he failed to mark “send”.

Not My Cousin Magda Says Goodnight to the Children

He was the Minister of Fear, she the hopeless seeker
of reincarnation; like my cousin Magda
Mrs. Goebels knew Mengele, loved her children.

They were given Wagnerian names—
Hildegard, Helga, Helmut, Hedwig, Heidrun, Holdine;
they wore nightclothes in their bunks and ribbons in their hair.

Helmut was nine and wore braces:
he may have heard the shot that killed their god,
thought the Red Army cannons meant rain and thunder.

Hilde, Joseph’s “little mouse,” was only eleven,
Holde was eight, Hedda shy of seven and Heide four.
When they followed their mother upstairs, some were smiling.

In the Red Army photo it’s easy to count the bodies
lying outside the Vorbunker—five girls and a boy
their bones clumped and charred at the side of their mother.

Hopped up on speed Joseph first destroyed the dogs,
then injected his kids with morphine and cyanide.
Twelve years old, Helga must have struggled—

the Russians found bruises on her body. Almost done
he shot Magda, his center of calm and saw her frozen smile
one last time fixed on the rubble outside of their window.

Mommy Baby, Daddy Maybe

Like some 19th century phrenologist counting bumps
on a head, you’re looking for a clue
as to who might be your daughter’s father—
the stern Italian psychiatrist you married
or a one night stand like me.

You suspect art’s in the genes
(and a little craziness too)
not to mention her pubic hair,
which you unblushingly describe,
during our last dinner of the 60’s,

as ethnically black and curly,
looking for the hidden Jew
like a crypto-Nazi might
toweling off in a gym
checking the love pies of Waspy girls.

It makes me stop my fork in mid-air,
holding the linguini hostage,
to hear you sound like a Camp Kommandant
examining prisoners’ dicks.

Back in the day we boned around a lot—
hence the continent of genes,
brown eyes and olive skin
in your own contaminated pool.

We might have been cousins long ago.
Does anyone’s line run true?
When the head of your granddaughter crowns next year
and its hair seems more like mine don’t call me.

Poor Richard

In a parking lot in Leicester Shakespeare might have said
fortune buckled on his back.
Thus history avenges murderous kings
and the rest: eats away the clay
of battlefield and bed room, dry heaves
and phlegm our common cement.

Greatly reviled for black rage and a spavined back,
Richard bravely fought hand to hand
at Bosworth until his soul had fled, cleaved by a halberd.
Always unlucky his corpse was taken for safety to an abbey
later burned and sacked. God laughs.
Five centuries pass before a twisted spine and DNA

erupt in a car park. Mocked even at rest
Poor Richard discovers humility, fortune’s final jest.

Mix Tape After An Injury

Words go before everything: the low winter sun
coruscates a line of houses and steeples,
factories and boat sheds, writes silvery grays,
re-pointed bricks, green metal siding
crinkled with age, and ice chips cracking in a breeze
rising off the water in a sulcus of my occipital brain.

My left ankle gives way bending beneath a branch
as it did when I was five. Crumpled on uneven ground,
I fold up and gather myself for the long slide
butt first up the stairs
to my cave, a wolf injured by a trap
who blunders into further confinement.

By day I lie in bed unwashed and unshaven,
embalmed by silence, pretzels at hand and a cat
who stays away for hours, put off
no doubt by the fetor of decay
and the sound of politics on the radio.
I don’t have the blues, just the blahs.

By night my ancient bladder insists I crutch
bed to toilet and back in the dark,
waking my wife as I pirouette out of control,
decades of age gained in a few hours,
new knowledge of why some prefer death
to helplessness.

Don’t think I’m overcome with despair and rage:
there’s time enough to read books and be freed
by whimsy. One day I shall rise from my sepulcher
in resurrection—a cartoon of ultimate freedom.
No cartoon my cat eats little bits of steak,
pasta and popcorn. I am entertained.

Daylight leans forward into darkness—
America forecloses on Kodak and Wonder Bread,
on Oldsmobile and Beth Steel.
I get spammed by CME asking if I’m comfortable
with lower extremity dislocations—
only with high ankle sprains I reply.

Time slows lying in bed alone—
in the brain the hours wait the mind out
and shadows fall like premonitions,
chains of circumstance weighing me down:
sixty-five in this awful time, a djinn without a master,
a minim of bright red blood on my knee.


Michael Salcman is a former chairman of neurosurgery at the University of Maryland and president of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. Poems appear in Arts & Letters, Hopkins Review, Hudson Review, New Letters and Poet Lore. Books include The Clock Made of Confetti, nominated for The Poets’ Prize, The Enemy of Good is Better, Poetry in Medicine, his popular anthology of classic and contemporary poems on doctors, patients, illness & healing (Persea Books, 2015), and A Prague Spring, Before & After, winner of the 2015 Sinclair Poetry Prize from Evening Street Press (2016).

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