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Michael Simms: Rumor of War | February 24, 2022 

for Eva

.

As you read Die Zeit, you’re translating for me

the story of the war that’s begun not far 

from Siegen, and I remember the spires of your small city in Westphalia, 

the old book smell of Klaus Feiertag’s shop on Kampenstrasse,  

the few gabled half-timbered buildings that survived the bombings,

the intricate iron door-strappings and fittings, 

the ornate hinges and handles you love to photograph,

the fishtail fans, the Celtic mazes, the orbs and eyes and swords of iron,

details of roof windows, sills and sashes, beams and gutters, soffits and fascia,

swirling patterns carved into slate walls,

every element crafted with attention,

the squat chimney pots like gnomes looking out over the rooftops to the far mountains,

the towers on the hill guarding the city destroyed and rebuilt repeatedly through the ages.

.

I imagine you as a teenage girl loving this city

climbing the long-cobbled road up Siegberg hill, 

the old palace of Oberes Schloss converted to a museum.

Although you hurry past the painting by Rubens, your townsman, 

The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus

depicting muscled Castor and Pollux gripping two naked women

while a black-winged putto looks on,

you stop to read the 3,000-year history 

of the men in your family tunneling through red rock 

of iron ore, dust clogging their lungs, killing them slowly.

And you think of the women dying of childbirth, 

dying of endless work, of grief, of rape and hunger.

You hurry across the hard floor of greywacke stones set in a herringbone pattern 

and outside, climb a medieval bastion to look down at the city

spread out below and the Hüttental Valley beyond. 

.

You love this park in the spring when 60,000 tulips are in bloom

and in summer the outdoor concerts of oompah music.

Dicke Turm means Fat Tower, but tourists sometimes call it Fat Dick,

a cruel name for a handsome edifice with a carillon that chimes every two hours.  

Even older and taller in the medieval core of the city stands the Nikolaikirche

a red and white church tower topped by the Krönchen,

a gilded crown, the shining symbol for medieval Siegen. 

And you think of this beautiful city, your city, your father’s city 

attacked by British bombers in 1944.

.

Your father, just a boy, hid beneath the stairs

as the house came down around him.

After the bombs stopped falling, people emerged 

from basements and tunnels where they’d been hiding 

to look for food and fresh water.

Every building was a smoking ruin. 

Even the church tower was half-demolished. 

.

You’ve told me of The Aktives Museum 

where Siegen’s one synagogue burned down during Kristallnacht

And you’ve told me of Walter Krämer, hero

of the Westphalia resistance, prisoner at Buchenwald 

who taught himself medicine to save his fellow inmates.

Blessed are the essential workers, as we say in our own dark days.

.

The small zoo nearby has white-cheeked gibbons and laughing kookaburras 

and children can make friends with goats and donkeys.

Here you eat schnitzel and roasted potatoes 

with a tall glass of Krombacher brewed nearby. 

You walk the cobbled streets of this city 

founded before the Romans came, before

the Franks, the Burgundians, the hundreds of chieftains

who fought for control of farms

and mines, river and forest that provided

meager work for your family. Your father drove 

a truck for forty years through the winding rutted roads

delivering groceries to villages 

where people have lived for a hundred generations

of rain and snow. The church registry 

lists a thousand years of your ancestors 

and beside every man’s name his occupation

as miner or farmhand. Your grandmother cooked

for the mine owner’s family, and your grandfather’s

bookstore was raided when he refused to display

Nazi propaganda.  Too old to fight, 

.

he was sent to villages in the low country

and given a shovel to bury 

rotting corpses. When he found

the hand of a child beside the road,

he threw the shovel in the bushes and walked home.

Captured by the Americans, he spent six months as a POW.

He said it wasn’t bad, at least they fed him.

You remember his kindness to children,

how you learned to read in the nook beneath his desk,

but also, how easily he broke the necks of the caged rabbits 

and how you ran from the dinner table,

hid in a closet and wept for them. 

.

The ruins of war lay across the city like a shadow. 

The boy hid beneath the stairs

as the house fell around him.

I’ll say it again and say it differently

because the horror of war must never be forgotten.

The boy hid beneath the stairs

when the Good Guys came to kill him. 

.

You were told not to wander through empty lots 

of charred bricks, broken blocks, girders

sticking out of the ground like bones

because bombs lay forgotten beneath the soil.

You were warned not to talk to the soldiers

who leaned against street lamps watching you 

walk by, as soldiers of other wars had watched 

your mother, your grandmother, her mother

back to a time when men charged each other

with bronze spears and drank mead

from the skulls of their enemies. 

.

Now tanks are rolling

down the streets of your fear as we sit over coffee

in our comfortable home far from war 

in a country sliding toward war

and our leaders speak of protecting democracy

but never speak of killing children.

.

Your voice carries a hint of your first language 

like baggage from a past your family has survived.

You often say We are the ones descended 

from survivors. We will survive as will our children.

Your brothers and their wives in the old country 

are safe now, but in your blood is the ancient fear 

like the winter sun that shines on the broken stalks

of our garden, the same sun that shines

on the frozen fields of war far away 

but growing closer. 

.

Author Note: This is a first draft I wrote on the morning of Thursday, February 24, 2022, after my wife Eva and I learned that the Russians had invaded Ukraine. For Eva, who is German with family and friends living in Westphalia, the news was difficult to bear, recalling the stories she’d heard as a child about the bombing of her hometown of Siegen during the war and the hardships her family suffered in those years, including the leveling of Siegen on December 16, 1944, by the British. Siegen has a rich architectural history with roots that go back to the Bronze Age, and Eva grew up watching the city being rebuilt. The idea that Europe would again be at the edge of self-destruction is horrifying.

Copyright 2022 Michael Simms

Michael Simms is the founder and editor of Vox Populi. His most recent collections of poetry are American Ash and Nightjar (Ragged Sky, 2020, 2021).

Aerial view, Siegen train station, Westphalia, 1945 (Source: World War Photos)

14 comments on “Michael Simms: Rumor of War | February 24, 2022 

  1. John Tieman
    March 2, 2022

    This is not simply a good poem. I think it an important one. It’s sad that we need such poetry. That said, the poignancy of the poem is both moving and politically necessary.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      March 2, 2022

      Thanks, John. You’ve written many fine pieces of prose and poetry about war, so I’m honored by your praise.

      Michael Simms https://www.michaelsimms.info

      Author of Nightjar Author of American Ash  Founder of Autumn House Press Editor of Vox Populi

      >

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thomas Dillingham
    February 26, 2022

    First draft? I hope you will leave it as it is, heart-rending, wise, generous, beautiful. It rebukes rage, while acknowledging the justice of profound indignation at cruelty and inhumane policy, against greed for power and dominance. As in most of your poems, it is compassion that pervades the experience of reading it. Thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Vox Populi
      February 26, 2022

      Thank you so much, Thomas. Your praise means so much to me. The poem came out in a hour-long burst after Eva and I heard on the radio about the Russian invasion. But behind that hour lay 35 years of listening to Eva talk about her childhood growing up among ruins and watching the city being rebuilt.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Barbara Huntington
    February 26, 2022

    And long for everything—the plague, the evil humans do to themselves and other life snd perhaps my stroke and getting old to be honest, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Barbara Huntington
    February 26, 2022

    A beautiful and, I think, important poem. Yesterday I heard an old song, not related, yet related to the time in some odd way, Down by the Riverside, and it opened me up and I cried ugly and long gif everything

    Liked by 2 people

    • Vox Populi
      February 26, 2022

      Thank you so much, Barbara. With all you’ve gone through recently, you still sing the praises of others. What a beautiful soul you have.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. rhoff1949
    February 26, 2022

    Michael!

    This is simply a fabulous poem, chock full of living detail, and it moved me deeply. “The boy hid beneath the stairs/when the Good Guys came to kill him.” Thank you for puncturing smugness and showing us a chink of sunlight in the otherwise sealed bunker of nationalism.

    Do you know Sebald’s Natural History of Destruction?

    Gratefully,

    Richard

    “I have seen the truth; I have seen and I know that people can be beautiful and happy without losing the ability to live on earth. I will not and cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of mankind. And it is just this faith of mine that they laugh at.”

    — Dostoyevsky

    richardhoffman.org

    >

    Liked by 3 people

    • Vox Populi
      February 26, 2022

      Thank you, Richard. With all the brilliant poems you’ve written and with your brilliant critical mind, your praise means the world to me. Following your advice, I just now ordered Sebald’s Natural History of Destruction in the Kindle edition, and started reading it. Thanks for the recommendation, a perfect companion book for this poem. Peace, brother.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. James M Newsome
    February 26, 2022

    Thanks for sharing your insightful poem of witness. I have a friend from Latvia whose first memory is of being in a displaced person’s camp, separated from her parents. She has expressed fear for decades now of what Putin or Russia will do. It is getting very close for her. The tone of the poem feels right. The past, present, and future beginning to resemble each other. Peace to you and your family and all of us.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Vox Populi
      February 26, 2022

      Thank you, James. Yes, we Americans of recent generations have been spared war within our borders. But we’ve inflicted wars on other countries both by our military and by our influence. My in-laws in Germany were not so lucky. What surprised me about the Germans of their generation was that they held no bitterness toward the Americans and British who destroyed their country. Klaus, my wonderful father-in-law, a truck driver who never finished elementary school because of the war, summed it up by saying, essentially that the ruin of Germany was the German’s own fault for letting the Nazis take over the country. May we be as wise about the fate that awaits America.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Elisabeth Crago
    February 26, 2022

    Fantastic poem, Michael. My mother was a war bride from Ferrara, Italy who grew up with the rise of fascism (literally born the day Mussolini marched into Rome). I am grateful she is not alive to see what’s happening in our world–both domestically and near her home country, so my heart aches for Eva, as for so many. Thank you for this.

    Like

    • Vox Populi
      February 26, 2022

      Thank you so. much for these warm wishes, Elizabeth. Eva has the purest heart of anyone I know, and yet she grew up in the ruins left from the war. I admire her and her family a great deal.

      Liked by 2 people

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