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A Prague Spring, Before & After Paperback – August 1, 2016
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Paperback, August 1, 2016
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About the Author
MICHAEL SALCMAN, physician, poet and art critic, was born in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, came to the United States in 1949 and trained in neurosurgery at Columbia University. Formerly chair of neurosurgery at the University of Maryland and president of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore, he is the author of six medical textbooks, six previous collections of poems and, most recently, the editor of Poetry in Medicine, an anthology of poems about doctors, patients, illness, and healing. His poetry has appeared in numerous journals including Alaska Quarterly Review, Evening Street Review, Harvard Review, Hopkins Review, Hudson Review, Ontario Review and Poet Lore. A Prague Spring won the 2015 Sinclair Poetry Prize.
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For example, the poet has this to say about his cousin, who narrowly escaped torture and death at the hands of the Nazis: "Today she's still beautiful, colored like my mother in late bloom and nervous as a cat; but not everything in her has survived."
Or this: "... angry, like a father whose child can't get it right: which hand holds the fork, which fraction is turned upside down when you divide." This poem is about a brutal beating the poet endured while a student (later to become a prominent neurosurgeon)—presumably for no other reason than his Jewish heritage. Reflecting on that awful day, he wrestles with the concept of an angry God.
Don't let the heavy subject matter scare you away. Even though it touches on a terrible part of history, this small book is beautifully written and well worth the read.
Salcman, the poet, is unrelenting in recording historical fact within his poetry. His scholarship is always meticulous. His images are often devastating; he writes poetry that cries, yet poetry that tells a story with an urgency to be recorded and read. It is certainly paradoxical that one whose childhood innocence was surely lost upon learning of his family's destruction..."God knows why a family as large as a town was erased..." could maintain his imagination and poetic apprehension of the world. Certainly blessed with the heart and soul of a poet, he connects his readers to a history that demands telling and retelling.
Salcman's surviving relatives are lovingly memorialized in his book. His beloved father, Arthur, joined the Partisans during the war. He often hid in farm house cellars where " the landlady hung a crust of bread from a cord so she wouldn't have to touch the Jews." His beloved mother, Edith, survived by posing as a Catholic and by working in a factory. Salcman writes," At the end of the war, my mother, Edith, lay down in an alley too narrow for tanks, warmed by the carcass of a dead horse," He tells of his cousin, Arnold, ( a survivor ) who was thirteen but jumped into a freight car going the wrong way, giving his father's hand a final squeeze... while they were waiting for the train to Terezin." My cousin Magda survived three of Mengele's "selections" by lying about her age. " But not everything in her has survived, " writes Salcman. His work also references the last three of his family to survive the Holocaust: his stepmother Lilly, who is still living, and his uncle Alfred and grandmother Yanka who are since deceased. His dedication in the text ends with the Six Million of Blessed Memory.
Finally, Salcman includes an extensive prose piece which contains the history of Pilsen, the place of his birth, and that city's fight for freedom across the centuries.This piece is most interesting as it explores the Salcman family history in Prague, as well as his personal recollections of the Prague Spring. Black and White photographs, of modern day Prague, by Lynn Silverman, add a special atmosphere to the text. In his notes, Salcman calls his book an " exorcism of sorts." Perhaps it is actually a triumph of the poetic imagination over a world of unimaginable horror, as his poetry enables his readers to enter this world with a human empathy unique to the aims and ends of poetry. Perhaps he considers his work an " exorcism of sorts, " because he deeply understands that the painful knowledge of his family's history in the Holocaust will remain a part of him forever. He describes himself as " a boy who loved trains, but not the tracks." It will therefore remain to the readers of A Prague Spring, Before and After, to honor and share Salcman's burden. As he nears his 70th birthday this year, he can be assured that he has magnificently fulfilled his own promise to " assemble an amazing chronicle," with his intensely moving and powerful command of the language of poetry.