~ This poem was originally published in Aries (2012).
THE THREE WEISSES
Shades and graces come in threes: my cousins in Queens
were aunt and uncle to me,
the first I knew as elderly
rich with sandpapered faces
and thin-rimmed glasses they wore like monocles.
My first lesson in the upper classes—
a tinted portrait above the mantle,
Hettie and Syd and Uncle Carl posed as kids
in white smocks and puffy sleeves
as big as their heads, and a favorite spaniel for color.
Upstairs their sentient mother lived in solitary splendor,
my father’s Aunt Rose, a hundred
when I was five, whose backside routinely greeted me
freshly bathed and powdered
with a faint smell of garlic and uric acid in Queens.
Syd’s husband I never knew
or can’t remember, and soon after he died
she moved back in with the other two
and seemed as much a spinster as they ever did,
eternally wed to brother and sister.
Of the past not a word was spoken—
one could never know how Hettie’s young heart
had been broken or why Carl with a smile like Coolidge
never pursued a bride
or wore sweaters in summer until the day he died.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEM
My father started to fail in 2010 and this must have put me in an elegiac mood. I had written and published many poems about him but only a few about his relatives and mine. In point of fact, after the Holocaust and after my mother died young in 1973, there was virtually no one left to write about. The three of us were immigrants from Czechoslovakia, arriving in the United States in 1949 when I was three. But for my maternal grandmother and my father’s younger brother, both of whom had survived all the killing in Europe and were also now in America, I was left with virtually no ancestral memory and no way of tracing our family history. I was greatly surprised, therefore, to meet the Weisses, some of whom had spent more than a single generation in America. At that time I had never ventured out of Brooklyn where we lived on the sixth floor of an apartment building. Suddenly it seemed the family had doubled in size. Today the Weisses would be considered upper middle class but I thought them rich; they lived in the first private home I ever entered and had the first pet dog I ever saw. My marmoreal encounter with Aunt Rose in her bedroom was both imposing and reassuring, a bit like Pip’s first meeting with Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, an indelible experience as later would be the pleasure of reading that novel in my youth. Their lives like many seemed a combination of splendor and tragic secrets. This is the true subject of the poem. Within a year or two of its final version I had turned 65 and had completed elegies of a sort for Nicholas Hughes, the son of Ted & Sylvia, Deborah Digges, one of my teachers, my wife’s dearest friend, Ilona, Duke Snider, the hero of my Brooklyn youth, John Updike, and my father.
ABOUT MICHAEL SALCMAN
Michael Salcman, poet, physician and art historian, served as chairman of neurosurgery at the University of Maryland and president of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. He is the author of almost 200 scientific and medical papers and six medical and scientific textbooks translated into Spanish, German, Portuguese and Chinese. Special Lecturer in the Osher Institute at Towson University, Salcman lectures widely on art and the brain. His course “How The Brain Works” is available on the Knowledge Network of The New York Times. His work has been heard on NPR's “All Things Considered” and in Lee Boot’s Euphoria (2008), a documentary film on the brain and creativity. He has given readings at the Library of Congress and the National Academy of Sciences, the Pratt Library of Baltimore, The Academy of Medicine in Atlanta, The Writers Center in Bethesda, the Bowery Poetry Club and the Cornelia Street Cafe in New York. Recent poems appear or will appear in Alaska Quarterly Review, Hopkins Review, The Hudson Review, New Letters, Notre Dame Review, Ontario Review, and New York Quarterly. Featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily and All Things Considered, his work has received six nominations for a Pushcart Prize. He is the author of four chapbooks and two collections, The Clock Made of Confetti, nominated for The Poets’ Prize, and The Enemy of Good Is Better (Orchises, 2011). His anthology of classic and contemporary poems on doctors and diseases is forthcoming.
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