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Poetry Moment: Michael Simms and 'Who Will Tell Them?'

Poet Michael Simms

Poetry Moment on WPSU is a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Host Shara McCallum is this year’s Penn State Laureate.

Today’s poem is “Who Will Tell Them?” by Michael Simms.

Michael Simms has worked as a squire to a Hungarian fencing master, stable hand, gardener, forager, estate agent, college teacher, editor, publisher, technical writer, and literary impresario. He identifies as being on the autism spectrum and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who didn’t speak until he was five years old. Simms is founding editor of Autumn House Press and of Vox Populi. A Pittsburgh resident, in 2011 he was recognized by the Pennsylvania Senate for his contribution to the arts. His most recent poetry collections are American Ash and Nightjar.

We are in the age of the Anthropocene, marked by a period of mass extinction caused by human activity. Scientists have been warning for decades of the consequence of human actions on the environment and on the planet’s ability to sustain all manner of life, including our own. Poetry has never been separable from harsh truths, is not all flowers and love, as Simms’ searing poem reminds us. “Who Will Tell Them?” is an elegy for the lives and species we’ve already lost—who the poet names and in so doing mourns. Yet inside each form, I believe, resides the shadow of its opposite. With the elegy, that opposite would be the ode, the poem of praise. As Earth Day approaches this Friday, I want to hear Simm’s poem in both lights: as memorial and as call to action, on behalf of the lives we are still capable of saving.


Who Will Tell Them?

It turns out you can kill the earth,
Crack it open like an egg.
It turns out you can murder the sea,
Poison your own children
Without even thinking about it.

Goodbye passenger pigeon, once
So numerous men threw nets over trees
And fed you to pigs. Goodbye
Cuckoo bird who lays eggs
In the nests of strangers.

Goodbye elephant bird
Who frightened Sinbad.
Goodbye wigeon,
Curlew, lapwing, crake.
Goodbye Mascarene coot.
Sorry we never had a chance to meet.

Who knew you could wipe out
Everything? Who knew
You could crack the earth open
Like an egg? Who knew
The endless ocean
Was so small?

Right now, there are children playing on the shore.
There are children lying in hospital beds.
There are children trusting us.
Who will tell them what we’ve done?

That was “Who Will Tell Them?” by Michael Simms.
Thank you for sharing this moment of poetry with me today.

Shara McCallum was the 2021-22 host of "Poetry Moment" on WPSU.
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