Poetry: “Uncle Rudi” by Michael Salcman


after Gerhard Richter, 1965

Based on a family snap the artist’s uncle stands a warrior posed in grand regalia, facing the camera head on, two columns of buttons front his winter coat with smeared eagles and almost invisible lightning bolts on the collar and epaulets, a swastika perched on his cap. Smiling like an aristocrat, Rudi casually holds a glove in his left hand. Good posture: he’s as stiff as a chimney or lighthouse, his face a smirking beacon lit in the gray fog. Behind him a wall of stacked stone and beyond that his hat edges into a tree blurred like smoke and a government ministry, windows arrayed in Bauhaus rows. A few months after this photo’s taken Rudi’s dead at the front, a true believer to the end, as was Richter’s father and some other members of the family, their war-time artifacts retired to a box the artist discovers by accident. He might have destroyed the evidence—especially that black and white resemblance he bears in the nose and mouth—but pins their features to the canvas as precisely as he can before loading a brush with turpentine, smearing his almost photographic copy in violation or a personal twist on history or the power of a lens to lose the focus of everything but his uncle’s fatal smile.

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 lectures widely about art and the brain. Poems appear in Alaska Quarterly ReviewHopkins ReviewThe Hudson Review, New LettersNotre Dame ReviewPoet Lore and Ontario Review. Featured on Poetry DailyVerse Daily and All Things Considered, his work has received six nominations for a Pushcart Prize. Salcman is the author of four chapbooks and two prior collections, The Clock Made of Confetti, nominated for The Poets’ Prize, and The Enemy of Good Is Better (Orchises, 2011); Poetry in Medicine, his anthology of classic and contemporary poems on doctors, patients, illness and recovery was published in 2015 (Persea Books). Special Lecturer in the Osher Institute at Towson University, Salcman is a poetry editor at The Baltimore Review and art editor for The Little Patuxent Review. His forthcoming book, A Prague Spring, Before & After, includes “Uncle Rudi” and won the 2015 Sinclair Poetry Prize from Evening Street Press.