Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Michael Simms: The Dark

Beauty didn’t interest me.
Bats did. I was
a budding nerd
 
who’d already memorized 
everything I could find about 
the 17 species of bats 
 
nesting in Carlsbad Caverns 
and now my imagination was aroused 
by the possibility of seeing the nursery 
 
of the Brazilian free-tail 
where a colony of millions
hung upside down 
 
nourishing their babies with
milk, not insects, as I explained 
to my mother who gleamed with pride 
 
at her little chiropterologist. 
The bats flew out of the cave 
in a huge black cloud every evening
 
to hunt insects and haunt 
the countryside, returning at dawn 
using echolocation, I explained 
 
to my mother. The nursery
was off-limits to families on the tour of course 
but I had plans of sneaking away.
 
*
 
The park ranger herded us down 
the chained path sloping into the earth 
until we came to a cathedral
 
where columns of rock caught the light 
and shimmered. If beauty 
had been my thing this was it
 
but it wasn’t. I was impatient 
to see the flutter-mice I’d come for 
and nothing less. In a sonorous voice
 
the ranger said to us, his congregation,
Absolute darkness is rareEven if you lock yourself in a closet 

at night during a blackout
a small amount of light 
will seep into your eyes.

He said he would turn off the lights
for 30 seconds. Just 30 seconds,
he said, but it will feel like 

a lifetime. Then the world, everything 
I knew went dark and I gasped 
for light 
 
as if it were air and breathed in 
nothing I knew. Confusion, 
panic, calm, exhilaration
 
washed over me. I breathed 
the darkness into my lungs 
felt the darkness on my skin
 
not an absence but a texture 
which now half a century later 
I might name
 
the black fabric of my unconscious
although at the age of 11
all I knew was a rising panic
 
that dissolved 
into pure 
imperishable awe.
 
*
 
In that darkness
the chronic angers of my family 
which had ruled my life 
 
receded, as did school
which bored me, my supposed 
friends whom I suspected 
 
pitied me, and the whole 
shoddy apparatus of my life 
as an autistic kid 
 
who hadn’t learned to speak 
until he was five, 
an easy target for bullies and abusers
 
a kid who had climbed into himself
and found so little in the empty attic 
of a soul full of broken toys
 
he’d accepted
his role as the loneliest boy
on the planet, a perpetual
 
party of one, a specter
on the spectrum. Having been 
silent almost half my life 
 
I hadn’t gotten the hang 
of being pleasant, so I relied 
on the illusion of intelligence –
 
a tiresome authority on insects,
a memorizer of maps and tables,
a secret lover of Dean Martin,
 
a singer of the music 
of scientific names --
this life, the only one 
 
I would know for decades --
faded away in the dark 
like a bad dream I could wake from 
 
simply by turning out the lights 
and the darkness inside me 
would merge with 
 
the darkness of the world 
and I would feel whole 
and if not happy 
 
at least at peace with 
this sorry lot I’d been given 
through no fault 
 
of my own. The world 
of darkness would be mine
and like a comic book hero
 
who’d fought the demons
and won, I would have 
my own kingdom and with
 
a gentle hand I’d rule
the gentle dead 
who’d welcome me home.
 
*
 
And when the lights came back on
and the cavern beckoned
with its precarious
 
paths, low 
ceilings and huge opera halls,
stadiums of jeweled earth
 
and the slight breeze coming
from even deeper 
darknesses
 
below, nothing in the tour
of those magnificent caves 
and their tight squeezes that led to ballrooms 
 
and stadiums crowded with stone spectators 
who’d witnessed the slow accumulation
of calcium ghosts 
 
in the galleries of ancient coral beds, 
not the Hall of Giants 
or the Crystal Spring Dome,
 
not the stone elephants 
or the fine filigree of red minerals, 
or the stone draperies 
 
and lily pads suspended from the ceiling, 
or the cave pearls, the gypsum flowers, 
the chandelier ballroom of massive speleothems,
 
or the water dripping from the ceiling for eons
shaping the great cities uninhabited by the living,
or the tempting mysteries of Lake Lebarge 
 
with its blind white fish who’d never seen daylight, 
nor even the 138 miles of the forbidden wilderness 
of the Lechuguilla Cave
 
awakened my innocence 
and longing 
as this song, this
 
beckoning 
from the underbelly of the world
this darkness singing
 
come home, come home
little one
we’ve been waiting for you

*
 
As we passed the sign 
showing the way 
to the bat nursery which 
 
was the ranger’s cue
for a scripted joke about Batman, 
I ducked
 
out of line and moved toward
the narrow passage, but
my mother gently 
 
reined me in 
and I stayed with her 
through the tour, discovering
 
a group of sleeping bats is called 
a cauldron
and in flight a cloud
 
and that evening 
we returned to watch from the amphitheater
the black cloud of bats leaving the rocky entrance 
 
and gaining speed like wind-blown smoke 
sweeping over the Chihuahuan desert 
with a horizontal speed of up to 100 mph,
 
each soul catching and eating up to ½ of
its ½ ounce weight 
in flies, crickets, maggots
 
and I envied their nimble flight
on quick fierce wings
and I wanted to return
 
not to the cave, but to
the darkness, those 30 seconds
flying through 
 
the stone passageways 
navigating by sound and
instinct 
 
out of the cave and up
to the reddening sky, the slender moon
bright as a sword.
 
*
 
Yes, I knew I would return
to this nothingness, this absence 
where I could blossom 
 
like a stone flower,
a stalactite
growing slowly, invisibly
 
in the darkness that rose
like a slight breeze 
from the chambers below 
 
where even
my own breath seemed 
unbearably loud,
 
this quick fierce movement
like wings at the beginning of my feeling
life, this moment when the past
 
and future melded 
and time 
no longer flowed 
 
like water
but flowed like rock 
and even now, here 
 
in this darkness I still contain
I feel completely and blessedly empty 
and my own death begins to sing. 

Michael Simms is the founder and editor of Vox Populi. His latest collection of poems is American Ash (Ragged Sky, 2020).

Copyright 2021 Michael Simms

Brazilian Free Tail Bat (photo: US Forest Service)

29 comments on “Michael Simms: The Dark

  1. Brenda Knox
    April 12, 2021

    Thanks, Michael.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul Christensen
    April 12, 2021

    A penetrating gaze into the self via bats and caves. Marvelously carried out over a long frame of lyrical energy and patterns. Nicely done.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. healinghands231
    February 22, 2021

    I am absolutely blown away.

    When I started reading it, I was starting to fall in love with bats along with you.

    It was like a warm, soft blanket.

    Then as I continued to read, it became like a tent sheltering me from reality and pulling me into another world, another reality.

    When I continued, I realised it’s length, and it made me so satisfied and happy because I didn’t want to be taken out of its grip just yet.

    Now when I got to the end… I fell in love with bats.

    It is always the ones that didn’t start with words, who holds the greatest story. 👌🏽💕

    Liked by 1 person

  4. bonnbonn28
    January 10, 2021

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful poem. I find bats fascinating. You’ve created a beautifully dark and mysterious world. I enjoyed learning a bit of –batology– and I love the reference to the moon as a sword.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Susan Berlin
    January 7, 2021

    This poem is compelling, from the first line to the last, never losing momentum, each line adding to the reader’s knowledge while touching us with just the right amount of personal information to make us feel fully invested. I love this beautifully wrought poem (which is really something, because I hate bats)!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      January 8, 2021

      Thanks, Susan! Most people are afraid of bats, I’m afraid, but I think you know the poem is not about bats but about a boy who is learning to embrace his own fear.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Susan Berlin
        January 8, 2021

        Yes – and it’s amazing how the total darkness brought him light! A truly stunning piece of work. Thank you for this!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. rhass1
    January 7, 2021

    Like Plato’s prisoner in the Allegory, you have carried the insights gleaned from darkness and bats out of the cave and into the light of truth for all of us.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Patricia A. Nugent
    January 7, 2021

    Love the journey you take us on, the interiority revealed in the middle of what initially seemed to be a story about a young boy’s obsession with bats. It’s never that simple, is it?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Vincent Spina
    January 7, 2021

    A powerful poem. The evocation of the darkness within…wellspring of life/death. I can’t help relating it to Whitman’s “Cradle endlessly rocking”…but not on that epic level, but personal, intimate.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. loranneke
    January 7, 2021

    This is a most important, compelling, necessary and deeply moving poem!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. John Samuel Tieman
    January 7, 2021

    The work you have done recently is some of the finest you have ever written.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. rosemaryboehm
    January 7, 2021

    What a wonderful poem. I LOVE bats. I am indebted to you for sharing the autism references.

    Barbara Huntington: Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles are perhaps my favourite book of all times.

    “Yes, I knew I would return
    to this nothingness, this absence
    where I could blossom “

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Barbara Huntington
    January 7, 2021

    Perhaps I will try a poem after this one sometime. My obsession was tide pools and crustaceans, particularly crabs, but I also remember my awe when the lights were turn off in the Carlsbad caverns. I reinvented myself so many times trying to fit in. Did you read the story of the Martian in Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles who became what people wanted it to be? Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      January 7, 2021

      Thanks, Barbara. Yes, I remember reading Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles many years ago and loving it.

      Liked by 2 people

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