Incisive Mind

Dr. Michael Salcman revels in beauty and precision, whether he's performing surgery, writing poetry or collecting art

January 28, 2007|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun Reporter

"In my hand, an opera sings."

So writes Michael Salcman - neurosurgeon, art collector, poet - in his first book of verse.

That elegant image is contained in the poem "Small Bones." In just eight syllables, the author exultantly paints a picture of five fingers working independently but coming together in a harmonious whole.

The line depicts the hand as a complex, emotionally powerful work of art in its own right. Surely, that must be true of the fingers and palms belonging to surgeons and poets, and Salcman should know.

The physician's first book of verse, The Clock Made of Confetti, was released yesterday. A smattering of the 80 pieces are about his medical work, and it's no coincidence that both activities call upon similar skills: an unsparing eye, a steady hand with the scalpel and a precise, detailed knowledge of the workings of the human brain.

Salcman has a third passion that's every bit as important to his life as the other two: modern art. He is a self-taught, voracious collector. He and his wife, Ilene, have amassed more than 200 paintings and sculptures by such modern masters as Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella. He also served on the board of Baltimore's Contemporary Museum for nine years, the last three as president.

The three pillars of Salcman's intellectual life - surgery, poetry and modern art - might seem to have little in common. But all are different ways of exploring his favorite organ, which is about the size of a cauliflower and nestled inside the skull.

"Operating under the microscope is beautiful," Salcman says.

"It really was a fantastic voyage, and it occupied me intellectually for most of my life. I'm not operating any more, and I miss it. But art and poetry are complex enough to fill the void."

Salcman's medical career is winding down. At age 60, he is trying to reinvent himself as a poet. Like all artists, he dreams of making a lasting contribution, but fears that his best efforts will fall short. One of Salcman's favorite sayings, and the projected title for his second full-length manuscript of verse, is The Enemy of Good Is Better.

That phrase means that nothing short of perfection will suffice - not for Salcman's patients and not for his poetry.

Salcman always has had a ravenous hunger for knowledge, one that was sharpened, perhaps, by early hardship.

The only child of Holocaust survivors, he overcame a childhood bout with polio. He didn't walk again for six months.

"It made me hyper-sensitive. It made me weak. It made me dependent. And it made me fearful," he says.

But the boy was born with an intelligence remarkable for both its breadth and its incisiveness. As a young man, he shot to prominence in the medical field. But, in his mid-40s, he came to a heartbreaking crossroads and left the academic world, where the most important scientific research is carried out.

Like a dancer or a professional athlete, a surgeon must be in tiptop physical shape, and Salcman is. Though short, he is powerfully built, with a large head and a thick neck. Perhaps a slightly oversized cranium is needed to house that prodigious brain, just as his nose - slightly flattened at the tip - might express a fondness for a rousing intellectual brawl.

The doctor's movements are quick and decisive. Though he retains vestiges of a slight limp, Salcman seems to be always suppressing an impulse to bounce.

Even his aftershave reflects an aspect of Salcman's personality. He wears Calvin Klein's Obsession.

"It fits," he says with a laugh, "because I'm obsessed with so many things."

Presents in hand

On a recent wintry night, Salcman attended a meeting of his poetry writing group at the home of his friend Jennifer Wallace.

The bungalow overlooks Lake Montebello, and the night was so cold that the division between the ice and the atmosphere above it was barely perceptible; both water and air seemed made of the same thick, dark, slushy substance.

But the bungalow was cozy, and Salcman held the pages written by his fellow authors as if they were made of some velvety material that caressed the hand. He also distributed extra copies of a recent issue of Poetry magazine.

"Michael always comes with presents," says one member of the group, Darlene Bookoff.

Indeed, Salcman constantly copies articles or poems and hands them out to members of his book group, his medical staff, chance acquaintances and strangers on the street. His favorite role always has been that of the teacher.

"Michael is incredibly generous," says Wallace, who teaches poetry and essay writing at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

"He's extremely well-read and very opinionated. He makes these grand pronouncements, and he doesn't like to be contradicted. In another person, that could be a recipe for elitism.

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