Michael Salcman: former chairman of neurosurgery at the University of Maryland and president of the Contemporary Museum. Poems appear in Arts & Letters,  Café Review, Harvard Review, Hopkins Review, Hudson Review, and New Letters. Books include The Clock Made of Confetti, The Enemy of Good is Better, Poetry in Medicine, his anthology of classic and contemporary poems on doctors, patients, illness & healing, A Prague Spring, Before & After, winner of the 2015 Sinclair Poetry Prize, and Shades & Graces, inaugural winner of The Daniel Hoffman Legacy Book Prize (Spuyten Duyvil, 2020). Necessary Speech: New & Selected Poems was published by Spuyten Duyvil in January, 2022.

Blue Smoke Inside My Head

Today I saw a blue jay land on a backyard poplar

While I puffed away on a Parejo from Havana

Its blue smoke rising inside my head

Behind my eyes and along my spinal cord

Bristling like a tree or worn-out toilet brush

In Baltimore.

                         This season I’m covered in blue—

My mouth, my throat, my unhappy mood dressed

In the world’s favorite color by actual vote,

Coiling and uncoiling like a blue racer’s spawn

As my brain’s cyanotype fills with musical notes.

This year there was no fire just the smoke

It seemed to extinguish every hope; I know

The ancient Greeks had no word for the color blue,

See Homer’s wine-red sea and rosy-fingered dawn.


Here lies consciousness in the brain stem, its power plant

of energetic fibers traveling up towards the corpus callosum,

this picture captured in the moment of wakefulness spread

to both the right and left brains, just above the blushing red

fingerprint of a small guided missile computer or tree

(your cerebellum) tilted up from its basement, and everywhere

spent energy washed in the blue sulci between the red-green

forests of curving cortex, where crystalline fluid bathes

the brain clean of exfoliated toxins and metabolic spillage.

On our left, the heavy frontal lobe looks planted, facing down

as if the head’s engaged in an acrobatic flip, its owner

tumbling on a floor mat or reaching for the lower most bar

in a qualifying gymnastic stunt. Or else this head is bent

to a research bench or at a writer’s desk in a concentrated instant

of thought worrying over an equation or rhythmic sentence.

We can never know whose brain this is or what our alternate self

is doing but share in its creaturely pride, having painted the scan

with colorful flames to highlight our machine’s mysterious activity.