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Five Poems by Michael Salcman PDF E-mail
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10-CENT CITY                                          


Years before John Waters, Café Hon & Homicide,

before galleries sprung up in Hampden

& trendy stores cluttered the Avenue,

before stretch Hummer limos came to Patterson Park

for drugs & girls & tapas

and millionaires lived on Fleet Street,

Baltimore was really wild.


When stockbrokers sold stocks & bonds in bars & restaurants

& Joe Sheppard painted Blaze Starr

shaking her thing at the Two O’Clock Club,

artists & models lived on East Baltimore Street,

over The Showbar,

where Shimkee sold popcorn with “a halo of flies”

and Handsome Pete was so besieged by the girls at the Gaiety

Perry’s eyes bugged out from begging

for some of the action to be laid off on him.


Back when bookmakers stood on every curb & corner with a horse

or whore at their side,

& barkers on The Block sucked you in with their hip hop jive,

Mad Man Batche swung his saxophone like an ax

& Stinky Fields told jokes in a dive,

Baltimore was really wild.


The barkeeps made more from cashing a check

than selling a drink, raking in change

from the first one percent on a few hundred dollars

& charging anything they could get on a lawyer’s check

for two thousand or more,

and the bookies in numbers and horses

could pay down a bar with their bets

after years of knocking it back & blowing on dice.


Back when the wise guys made their rounds like doctors

at nighttime, from the Park Plaza on Charles

to the Bucket of Blood on Madison

& never settled a tab for a hoisted beer

or chatted-up a babe until they found their way back

still breathing—

Baltimore was less polite.

Even the swells with keys

to get only the best, at the Gas Lamp or the Playboy,

needed a strong jaw to come out alive from some of those places.


And now they’ve sold The Dime,

auctioned it bit by bit,

because we’re too sedate to miss the wonders contained

in our urban museum:

a miniature steak house made out of match sticks,

a castle of corks,

not to mention that giant ball of twine, 

from Haussner’s in Highlandtown,

and the anatomically correct cast resin torso for seven fifty,

or the nine-foot Peruvian Amazon mummy—

three thousand dollars lying in her case.


They practically gave our treasures away:

knocking down a finger painting made by Betsy the Chimp

in nineteen fifty-five

and the genuine buck-toothed vampire duck.

I wonder who bought the fake leather jacket

decorated in human hair

for less than eighty-five bucks?


All of it’s gone, the Gator Girl, the Giant Bat,

the two-headed goose & the albatross,

all that once lived or not

in that bastion of the bizarre

gone in an hour or less.


And now, no one drunk or sober or self-deluded

will ever know for sure what was fake or real

or invented by Barnum

& rescued by The Dime

when New York was crazy & Paris went wild

& Baltimore was stranger than strange.




In your absence

the other

provides a surfeit of love


without high breasts

long legs

or the black-brown gash


that curves between your buttocks

like some old embryological drawing

of the bifurcation of the seed.



                                    for sculptor Miroslaw Balka


The light’s on in the basement

where the box it came in

sits like a coffin.


Upstairs two steel canes,

twisted like DNA,

and covered with soap on wire bristles,

break off crusts on our carpet.


When we bolt them up

each post's as tall

as his mouth would be

if braced against the wall,

the subject of an interrogation;

their tails sit on the floor

like the end of his gut.


The soap's not ivory colored

but comes from the earth, yellow and gray

where the bodies were dumped

in Polish soil.


Before these twisted spines

the artist’s placed a broken soup-spoon

like a small chimney,

its silver skin flamed

and blackened with ash,

so that its bowl—

emptied of sacramental wine

and the blessing of hope—

prays expectantly.



This comfort’s mine—the phone doesn’t ring

it’s forgotten how.


(Pouring another scotch)


In your hand fingers like clouds

too soft to push buttons, too white for a chat.


And anyhow I’ve misplaced its cordless body

under a pile of books (damn)


their spines like stone tablets scattered

in some ancient Agora


so that any sound the phone might make

will be muffled by my unstudied wisdom.


On the slight chance you remember to call

spare me your usual explanation:


life’s worn you out so bad

it’s erased the need to hear from the lips


you once felt everywhere on your body,

back when our love was openly out there


in a room not merely one’s own.






                                                                                March, 1933



My Dear Il Duce:


my publisher informs me that you have outbid

Hurst & Blackett and Houghton Mifflin for the right

to translate my book into Italian.

My pleasure at one day seeing my words cast in

the language of Dante is second only to the joy

of knowing the transfer was wired

to Franz Eher anonymously and in cash.

I thank you with all my heart.


Yours in fraternity,



                                                                                May, 1934



Signore Treves:


my compliments on completing so quickly

your felicitous translation, a credit to the cleverness

of your people. I trust the harsh pages

referring to them caused no undue difficulty or pain.

As you already stand handsomely rewarded

for your efforts, in the only way that really counts,

I’m sure you won’t mind if I must remove your name

from the spine of “La Mia Battaglia”;

this regrettable request came from our German partners

who wish to discount your presence.

Be assured dear Angelo, I remain


your loyal friend and proud publisher,

Valentino Bompiani



                                                                                Seventh Circle of Hell

                                                                                November, 2004                                                                         


My Dear Hitler:



news has reached me from a Papal nuncio

(no doubt via his prayers)

of the recent revelation of our little project.

The transfer of 53,625 marks in that crucial year

now appears excessive to a suspicious few


who assume I really paid for your political campaign.

You mustn’t believe I wasn’t sincere;

I told Valentino how much I dreamed to write

a book like yours but was shamed into inaction

by its many excellent passages,

some of which (unfortunately) have been found

underlined in my own hand.

This has further damaged my image

as Father of all the people

and inconveniences my granddaughter Alessandra

in her duties as a rightist deputy in Europe’s parliament.

I’ve tried to find your number with little success

so I must post this myself.

Connections here are deplorable


Yours as ever

Benito (Mussolini)




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