Three Poems by Michael Simms

Sidewalk Drain with Moss and String

If it’s human
to put things in categories
like putting them in a bag
a few pebbles collected in the alley
for their odd striations of color
you imagine forged in a volcano
when volcanos were a thing around here
a tattered notebook with a few scribbles
you wrote after your mother died
a hatband, a rubber band, a hairclip
dropped by a girl you were afraid to speak to
and out of the whole deck you saved only
this Jack of Spades winking at you knowing
something about you that keeps changing
if this hoarding of memories
is what makes you human then
are crows our cousins
carrying bits of yarn and bottle caps
to their nests weaving shiny things
into their homes the way
you brought home a photo
of a sidewalk drain full of green moss
and two pink roots curving onto the aggregate
and on one of the roots a piece of string
with three pieces of red brick beside the moss
because happiness clings to small things?



Beside the highway outside McKeesport PA
a state trooper has pulled over a black man
who leans against his rusty Ford
palms flat, feet apart
assuming the position
as we say in America.

The smokey in his broad brimmed hat
and menacing chin strap
which is leather, like the leather of his boots
and belt and holster, wears his hat
low, his face in shadow.

Beside us, the Monongahela River
quickens, making its way
through abandoned pastures
and ruined river towns
on its way to the Ohio.

As the smokey rummages through
the car, the man shrinks in his clothes,
catches my eye, then looks down
ashamed. What’s he done? I wonder
What’s the trooper done?

What have I done,
what have I ever done
but look away / up the road
toward the beautiful Laurel Highlands
hidden in the white mist of America?


A Cowboy in the Chapel of Bones

Baby Head Cemetery, Llano Texas

Where I come from
it’s bad manners to speak of death
except in dead metaphors. Kick the bucket. Bite the Dust.
Give up the ghost. Swan song – a pretty phrase, but bad ornithology.
I once heard a lady from London call dying Popping your clogs
as if we throw off a pair of muddy shoes after a long walk in the rain,
appropriate no doubt in London but not in the dusty streets of Llano Texas
where tooled boots Death might wear are the rage.

Cowboys are Calvinists.
We like the dead to stay dead,
ashes to ashes with no dust left over, no grave to visit.
Ancient cemeteries are just grazing land, undeveloped real-estate
waiting its turn to be turned over to developers
of green and gold towers rising above the dry plains.
Capitalism meets fantasy, and death plays no part in the story.

But our dead metaphors are a dead giveaway
that once we had more respect for the dead.
After all, a cliché is simply a beautiful phrase
we ride hot and put away wet until it weakens and dies.


On Día de los Muertos
my ex-in-laws visit the cemetery to pray and party
with the dead, a celebration of mortality.
They laugh, eat, drink, wear tall masks of demons,
make gifts to the dead and the living alike,
skulls made of sugar and pan de muerto with frosting shaped like bones.

I love the calaveras literarias, irreverent epitaphs dedicated to the living.
Mourning his mother who stands alive in front of him, Rudolfo recites
Como extraño sus tamales, empanadas y atolito;
voy a tener que aprender a cocinar yo solito.
(He misses his mother because he hates his own cooking.)

Joking with death reminds us
it’s the only imperative, the one necessity
giving urgency to our lives.
When we remember what we’d rather forget
we see and speak more clearly,
every day becomes an emergency, an emergence, an aparición
forcing us to become fierce about our faith,
to taste the chocolate before it’s gone,
to love the lover before the body fades
and to honor the body with marigold before it rots.


I remember years ago in Portugal
walking into the Chapel of Bones as if in a dream,
skulls, femurs, vertebrae cemented into walls,
three high windows casting a skeleton of light on the floor.
Our guide Virgilio told us the Capela dos Ossos
reminds us of the swift passage of life on earth.

No shit, I thought. 5,000 corpses, he said,
peasants exhumed from Évora’s medieval cemeteries,
bones arranged by the Franciscans in squares, spirals, pyramids,
a ceiling of white brick painted with black motifs.
Skulls scribbled with graffiti. Skeletons hanging from ropes.
Two desiccated corpses, one a child, in glass cases.
Aonde vais, caminhante, acelerado?
Where are you going in such a hurry, traveler?


Michael Simms has worked as a squire to a Hungarian fencing master, a stable hand, a gardener, a forager, an estate agent, a college teacher, an editor, a publisher, a technical writer, and a literary impresario. He identifies as being on the spectrum and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who didn’t speak until he was five years old. He is the founding editor of Autumn House Press and Vox Populi. A resident of Pittsburgh, in 2011 he was recognized by the Pennsylvania Senate for his contribution to the arts. His most recent books include two poetry collections — American Ash and Nightjar – published by Ragged Sky; and two novels — Bicycles of the Gods: A Divine Comedy and The Green Mage, both published by Madville.

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