Download PDF Here Live Encounters Poetry & Writing March 2022.
Odd, an exploration of my path to poetry – Guest Editorial by Michael Simms.
I was an odd child. Not learning to speak until I was five years old, I simply
stared at the adults with deeply set green eyes that made them nervous. I didn’t like other children. They were noisy and messy and always ridiculed me. I liked building stuff, stacking blocks to make an unsteady tower, digging a hole in the backyard to find China, using a tiny wrench to assemble a carousel wheel with my Erector Set. But no sooner had I built something, then one of my little brothers would smash it with his bat or fall on it, breaking it into pieces. In the real world, nothing was mine for long. Building things in my imagination was much safer.
The first time my father beat me, I was 18 months old. For years, he told the story as a funny anecdote about my stubbornness, something about my throwing magazines on the floor repeatedly. My brothers and I, as well as the other little boys we knew, were hit, whipped, screamed at, and humiliated for the smallest of infractions. Girls were never hit, but they experienced a different kind of abuse, as I discovered much later.
Violence toward children was considered necessary, even obligatory, the only way we would learn to behave ourselves and respect authority. Whipping with a belt was a common way of administering these lessons. My grandmother, Red Cook, had a rosebud tree in her yard which provided perfect little wands that cut through the skin of a boy’s naked butt. That’ll learn ‘em, durn ‘em, she’d say breaking up the wand speckled with blood and throwing it in the garbage.
Growing up in a small house with a violent father, a depressed mother, a crazy grandmother, four wild siblings, and various relatives and neighbors passing through, my childhood was chaotic. And nothing was mine, not even my name. Michael Arlin Simms. It seemed that almost every other boy my age was named Michael. There was Michael John Chapman, my best friend who lived down the street. There was Michael George Ashie, my cousin whom I saw every day. And in my kindergarten class, there were five other Michaels. It was so confusing to the teacher, Ms Verlaine, that she christened the Michaels with nicknames to keep us straight: there was Mike, Mikey, Mick, Micky, Michael, and… me. She never gave me a name — she just stared at me with a puzzled look on her pretty face.
When I tried to speak, a strangely muddled sound came out. My tongue was never in the right place in my mouth, so for example the name Roger – what Sky King said on the radio as he flew through the clouds and what I told people my name was – came out as Woszhuh. The other kids thought I was weird for good reason.
Miss Verlaine referred me to a speech therapist in the medical center near Hermann Park. Later, when people asked why I didn’t speak with a Texas accent, I didn’t know what to tell them, but now I realize that the speech therapist, a woman from Nebraska, taught me to speak in her dialect, so I usually sound like a Midwesterner. Every Tuesday, my mother, no doubt glad to get away from a house of screaming children and a bipolar mother-in-law, drove me to the therapist’s office. I enjoyed the half-hour drive through west Houston with my mom; these were among the few times when I was alone with her. I loved my mom, and to this day I believe she was the kindest person I’ve ever known.
Our small house was crowded, so I craved solitude. In our backyard a chinaberry tree stretched its branches above the flat aluminum roof of our porch. Our cat, whom we called The Cat, lived in the shade of the chinaberry, spending his days relaxing in the breeze and eyeing the sparrows that fed on the berries. One of my chores was to climb the chinaberry with a bowl of kibble in my hand and place it on the flat shady roof for The Cat who would eye me carefully, crouch low, and pretend to be invisible until I’d left. He and I understood each other perfectly. We both wanted to be invisible.
White working-class Texans, rednecks as others refer to us, are an ornery bunch. Almost everyone is armed – I received my first firearm, a .22 rifle that I loved, when I was just thirteen years old. Although I was encouraged to hunt, and I often practiced shooting tin cans at my family’s farm in East Texas, I never had the heart to kill an animal; but if I pretended to go hunting, nobody would bother me, and I was free to roam wherever I wanted. I often went into the woods to sit quietly on a log, and gradually the sounds of the birds would return as if I weren’t there.
I was in middle school when the possibilities inherent in language touched me for the first time. I came across a poem by William Stafford in an anthology titled Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle:
Straw, feathers, dust-
but if they all go one way,
that’s the way the wind goes.
This simple metaphor spoke to me as nothing ever had. For the first time, I caught a glimpse of the profound beauty that lay within day-to-day existence. Language, as it turned out, didn’t simply point to the world, it created a new one. We weren’t allowed to take the textbook home, so when we were supposed to be filling out grammar workbooks, I would sneak Watermelon Pickle from the cubby under my desk and read poems at random. I especially loved Eve Merriam’s “How to Eat a Poem”:
Don’t be polite
Pick it up with your
fingers and lick
The juice that may
run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now,
whenever you are.
A poem about poetry! I was struck by the irony. And in these pages, other poems sang to me: the muscular lines of Carl Sandburg, the melodic sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the social conscience of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The anthology contained worlds
within worlds. Later, the teacher required that we write a poem. I wrote twelve. At last, I was free from the cage of silence I’d lived in all my life.
People in my family didn’t drink because there was a long history of alcoholism on both sides of my family tree… thank God, because they were plenty crazy without alcohol. Many years later, being married to a psychologist and reading about mental disorders, I discovered that the aberrant behavior of the people in my family had clinical names. My father’s inability to see anyone except himself was called narcissism, and his un-restrained use of his fists pushed the diagnosis into malignant narcissism.
My mother, living in a dream world where 1940s romantic comedies were more real to her than the actual people around her, was a fantasist, and her fits of weeping and inability to get out of bed indicated that she had depression. My grand-mother Red Cook’s anger and violence indicated a degree of criminal psychopathy, and my grandfather Daddy Cook’s obsession with recreation — hunting, fishing, playing cards — reflected a Peter Pan complex. Grandmother Rosamond, my father’s mother who lived with us, was bipolar, as was my little sister Elizabeth who later would commit suicide.
A life-changing revelation for me was to discover that my oddness had a name, in fact, more than one name. I had Asperger’s syndrome, aka high-functioning autism. I was on the spectrum in addition to having post-traumatic stress syndrome. I’d been an abused child from a dysfunctional family. As a young adult, I’d tried to cope with my feelings of depression, isolation and self-loathing by self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. As a result, I’d become an alcoholic and drug-addict. Learning the diagnostic terms has allowed me to understand and accept myself, and over time, my neuro-divergent ways of thinking have empowered me with a slightly skewed vision of the world, a rich inner life, and a bumpy style of language, giving me a unique approach to writing. Having survived my own hell, perhaps like Virgil I can show others how to move through theirs and leave it behind.
Mary Jo and Aline
I want to say something but shame
yet if you had a desire for good or beautiful things
and your tongue were not concocting some evil to say,
shame would not hold down your eyes
but rather you would speak about what is just
Mornings they loved best
sitting over long breakfast
light slanting over them
Mary Jo sharing bits of news
Aline listening adoring
the sounds of birdsong
they were partners selling
real estate in southwest Houston
during the go-go years
Mary always said
sell the house to the woman
financing to the man
and shy Aline in charge
of paperwork a perfect team
perfect partners they’d met
at Baylor fell in love
reading Sappho and Millay
said goodbye at graduation
and as they thought of it
started their lives Mary
became a stewardess for Pan Am
considered a romantic profession
for a woman in those days
and Aline married
Dick a seminary student at Baylor
After years of hiding
they grew careless
Alene’s husband Dick by then
part-time preacher full-time slumlord
caught them eating berries in bed
Last time I talked with Aline
we sat in Starbucks
looking across the highway once a country road
where Westheimer Baptist Church stood
small wooden frame painted white
with a simple steeple double red door
a pulpit where Uncle Earl
roared his sermons and
Aline played the organ
behind the church now gone
I kissed my first girl whose name
I can’t remember the church
torn down years ago
now national boutiques
selling lipstick and bikinis
Aline says far away
Mary Jo was the great love
of my life we would’ve done
anything to stay together
For the sin of love
they sacrificed everything
Uncle Earl shamed them
from the pulpit the organ
was taken from Aileen
the music of prayer
no longer flowed from
her hands and Mary Jo
lost her family even
her grandchildren were taken
she died asking to see them
I wonder what it’s like
to throw everything you have
in the bonfire of no regrets
and hearing my thoughts
Aline says when she first saw
Mary Jo she couldn’t speak
as if my tongue was broken
and a soft flame
stole beneath my flesh
I remember when my sister died
no one could go into the bathroom
where she shot herself, bits of bone
blood and brain everywhere.
We closed the door and tried not to think
She felt unloved, but those of us who loved her
gathered at her house beside the Llano River
to mourn in our separate ways.
It was spring in the hill country
and bluebonnets covered the fields
Her husband locked himself in his bedroom for days,
kept alive by my mother handing glasses of water
through a cracked door.
My sister’s sons sat around a fire pit
with their friends, dazed teenage boys
crouching by the embers, refusing tears
My brothers stunned and helpless, trying to be helpful
around the house, kept breaking things
cursing and crying. After an unbearable silence
Bob said it’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it?
A hell of a thing
I remember walking into the Baptist church
standing at the back of the sanctuary
seeing a hundred people,
wondering who they all were,
so many Latinos with their children,
strangers at my sister’s funeral.
Then I remembered my brothers had married
Latinas, and these generous people,
my extended family I didn’t know,
loved my sister
I was amused at the irony —
as children we were taught to hate Mexicans
and now we’d become Mexicans
I started laughing, then wheezing uncontrollably,
panic rushing though me in waves.
Faces I didn’t know turned to look at me
not unkindly, but with worry and concern
and my nephew Andrew Narvaez
a sweet kid I’ve always liked
took me gently by the arm through the red doors
of the sanctuary and led me outside
to stand in the shade at the edge of the parking lot
beneath the wide arms of a live oak tree
He stayed with me, saying nothing
letting me calm down enough
to weep. We waited for the others —
my brothers, my parents, my family,
white and brown people emerging quietly
from the church and driving off
into the soft blue hills my sister loved
When we pulled into the driveway,
and this is the point of my story,
a woman was at the back door
putting a mop and bucket
in the trunk of her car. She came to us,
hugged my mother and said quietly.
I’m so sorry, Janie Lu. We all loved her
In the house, the bathroom door was open.
The light was on. All the surfaces
had been immaculately scrubbed.
The neighbor whose name I never knew
had come to the house unbidden,
scouring tile and porcelain, picking
bits of bone from the floor,
wiping up smears of brain,
cleaning blood-spray from the ceiling,
washing every sign of suicide away
My mother sat on the edge of the bed
and wept. She wept for her daughter.
She wept for herself and her family.
And she wept in gratitude
for the compassion of a neighbor
who understood a mother’s grief
People say the world is an ugly place and maybe it is
but sometimes people are so damned kind
I can barely breathe
for James Crews
© Michael Simms
Born and raised in Texas, Michael Simms has worked as a squire and armorer 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, a lexicographer, a political organizer, and a literary impresario. He identifies as being on the spectrum and as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who didn’t speak until he was five years old. He is the author of three full-length collections of poetry, most recently American Ash and Nightjar, as well as four chapbooks, four novels and a textbook about poetry, and he’s been the lead editor of over 100 published books. A novel Bicycles of the Gods: A Divine Comedy is coming out in August 2022. As the founding editor of Vox Populi and the founding editor emeritus of Autumn House Press and Coal Hill Review, he was recognized in 2011 by the Pennsylvania State Legislature for his contribution to the arts. Simms and his wife Eva live in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Mount Washington overlooking the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. Click here to see Michael Simms’s website.