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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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If You Can't See Him, He's Not There or Voilà, The Dog


Because I was not quite eighteen

each time we exchanged a breath

the thought of cutting the nerves to his heart

made my voice wobble,

me smelling the wet dog slobber

on his tongue and the both of us that first hit

of anesthetic gas

piped into his throat.

Needing a bit of misdirection

I hid him with a rectangle of cloth

towels clipped to his skin,

leaving the left side of the chest exposed

where I hoped to begin

my first solo trick with a knife.


A sucker for magic, I imagine

me closing my fist

on a colored silk to make a pigeon

or egg disappear—first there’s a gasp

for the shell and its contents,

then a laugh from the audience

when they don’t hear it crack.

Partially veiled by my fear,

I gaze into his fleshy window, happy

to not know where he’s gone, the dog I mean.

Perhaps he’s waiting in the wings offstage

as I try to fix his moist TV,

its parts clumsily moving like a watch

held by a walrus,

both of us hoping to reappear

mostly unchanged, after I tear off the sheets.



                                                     —Michael Salcman




Rockefeller's Gift


Mother and I sit in a government office trying not to think about

the one thin dime the governor's grand dad used to give

beggars on the street. Eleven years after we come to America

I finally meet my first important black man: he’s severely thin

and looks like a piccolo with a white-inflected voice,

his handshake holds no hint of promise, even if his name sounds

a lot like French money. On the chance we get the grant,

Mr. LeMonier says it must be spent in New York…unless,

and here his eyebrows raise with possibility,

there’s a special course of study the Empire State doesn’t have.

Mother looks too young and I'm fourteen with an ankle and calf

two-thirds gone from polio. I’m daydreaming of playing Lear

on Morningside Heights, half-attending to her next question—

she who presumes her wish is mine, as if she might be the one

doing college and medicine in Boston twelve months a year.

But each time she antes up a new exception he says “yes,”

both of them watching me ignore their conversation.

At last he shakes his head in my direction before fixing his stare on her:

And what will you do if he doesn’t get the money?

Mother blinks once or twice and gives him a glare

like Cordelia might, unclenching her mouth—Then he’ll still go,

and I, having lost the last bit of air in my chest, watch him lean back

in his chair, pyramiding his fingers in front of his mouth,

as he lets the dime drop: That was the right answer.

                                                                                                    —Michael Salcman


Fourth Greatest Human Being in World History


Had they come to ask for your opinion in your Nebraska dacha,

distracted by tractor coolant and the upcoming harvest,

would you answer the same as the great unwashed Russian public,

their mukluks trudging through Red Square, where he remains

embalmed, fifty years after dying the same day as Prokofiev,

perhaps the greatest artist he suppressed

when not killing dissidents or Jews?

The Times Book Review didn’t tell me who were the lucky three

ahead of him, predictable choices like Lincoln, Einstein or Jesus,

or a world conqueror like Alexander or Napoleon?

Better yet, was it someone like Lenin who combined his steely nerve

with real intellect and an equal desire to kill?

I can’t think what they meant by “greatest” or how he qualified as human.

It must have been a judgment based on more modest criteria— his birth

in Mother Russia, conventional Russian anti-Semitism

and reincarnation as Soviet Tsar.

                                                                    For god sakes,

Uncle Joe was born a bloody Georgian, no more a nationalist ideal

than a grocer in Sheboygan would be or a dog walker in Manhattan.

Forgetting more appropriate choices, each obviously disqualified

as too cosmopolitan (Malevich), too literary (Pushkin) and too gay

(Tchaikovsky), I bet any two of us could entertain ourselves

naming names, a hundred an hour for days,

before we ever thought of him as great in this sense.

And starting in any bar, we’d end up drunk in the street

having gotten down an enormous list, well past Nixon and Khrushchev,

to the truly loathsome and venal, those Dantean denizens

of the lowest circle, psychiatrists who sleep with their patients,

gold diggers who club baby seals and careerist poets until,

having exhausted every other possibility, we paused

to nominate ourselves and thought of the unnamed thousands

lying in their frozen graves before buying a ticket to Omaha

to interview that Nebraska farmer, too busy with planting to answer,

his nice dog, his good wife, his kids who mostly obeyed,

and agreed to move someone like him all the way up to Fourth.


                                                                                                    —Michael Salcman