Michael Simms: Two Poems
Selected by Alexis Rhone Fancher, Poetry Editor
Tree of Life
When the young man wearing a yarmulke
Asks Excuse me sir are you Jewish?
I want to say Yes
I’ve studied history and know
Something about suffering
But that’s not what he means.
He’s trying to find ten men
For a minyan
At Rodef Shalom down the street
And when the young man carrying a bible
Asks Have you heard the Good News?
I want to say Yes!
The cherry trees are blossoming!
And when he asks Have you been saved?
I want to say Yes!
I’ve been saved by poetry
From a childhood of abuse
And humiliation —
That’s a kind of miracle
But I know
He wants to know
Whether I’ve accepted Jesus
Into my heart and there’s the rub
Because my heart is so small
And Jesus is so big
When I walk into a cathedral
My heart sings, when I walk
Into a forest the trees sing
And when I walk down the street
The legless man on the sidewalk
Puts his whole heart into the ukulele
Oh Susanna we are saved
It is springtime in Pittsburgh
And in America
My friend Rashid is an atheist
Because his mother was killed by a bomb.
His father died unhappy and his sister
Has moved to Australia. Rashid blames
All his tragedies on religion
And he may be right.
We all have our tragedies
And maybe God is to blame.
What do I know?
Well, I know this much:
Anyone who has grown a garden, raised a child
Or looked at the sky far from a city
Knows the truth. So, yes, I’m a believer
In the Big Dark, the Ur-unknown,
The sense that my little mind
Is part of the Big Mind
I’ll never know
But I have to say
God, like a lazy cop,
Never seems to be around
When you need Him
Somewhere a soldier is beating a boy
For throwing stones. Somewhere
A priest is raping a child.
Somewhere a girl in a marketplace
Has a bomb strapped to her chest.
My friend and her mother
Were in the Tree of Life synagogue
When a man who hated immigrants
Pushed through the door of their faith
With an automatic rifle.
You know the rest.
For Arlene Weiner and Philip Terman
Note: On October 27, 2018, the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh was attacked during Shabbat morning services. The shooter killed eleven people and wounded six. It was the deadliest attack ever on the Jewish community in the United States.
Every man who works with his hands
Has seen that look. Perhaps we showed up
To patch the roof, service the furnace,
Or unclog the sewer, and the pasty
Bank manager expounds his idiotic theory
Of what should be done. His wife
With her $200 haircut points her
Manicured finger at the wet place
On the ceiling. We do the work
And stand there, not knowing what to do
With our hands as she makes out the check
Complaining of the cost. As we explain
What was involved, she looks at us
As if we were just released from prison,
Correct in her questions, rude
In her attitude. Her husband brags
How he could’ve done the work
But doesn’t have time these days
busy with clients, blah blah blah.
They despise us because they depend on us.
How long will they survive in the coming collapse
Of their roofs, their pink bathrooms
Filling with shit, their Wedgewood china
Traded for scraps of food.
After they’ve burned the last stick
Of furniture in the fireplace
They’ll flee their useless homes,
Beg to join us beside the fire,
Greedily devour our rabbit meat,
The bowl of weeds our wives gathered,
Admire our hairy large-knuckled hands,
And tremble as we howl with the dogs at the moon.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Simms has been active in politics and poetry for over 40 years as a writer, teacher, editor, and community activist. He is the founding editor of Vox Populi, a daily journal of poetry, politics and nature; as well as the founding editor of Autumn House Press, a nonprofit publisher of books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. He’s also the author of four collections of poetry and a college textbook about poetry — and the lead editor of over 100 published books. Simms has won a number of awards and fellowships, including a Certificate of Recognition in 2011 from the Pennsylvania State Legislature for his contribution to the arts. Simms has an MFA from the University of Iowa and a Certificate in Plant-based Nutrition from Cornell University. He lives with his wife, Eva, and their two children in the historic Mount Washington neighborhood overlooking the city of Pittsburgh. Simms’ most recent collection of poems is American Ash.