I grew up in a culture that celebrated death as much as it did life. Barely a stone’s throw from the riot of Bourbon Street was St. Peter’s Cemetery No. 1—the first of the “cities of the dead” that New Orleans was equally famous for. Life and death were Mardi Gras on Shrove Tuesday blending seamlessly into Ash Wednesday. My childhood was a thin veneer of American ingenuity underlain by deep notions of fate and fatalism.
And grief. Grief was as integral to life as joy. My mother came from a very large, very extended family. Someone was always being born, someone was always being married, and someone was always being “waked.” I learned early that Catholic wakes always had food and alcohol; Protestant wakes might have water and cookies or mints, but the alcohol, like the grief, was outside, where the men gathered, passed around in bottles wrapped in brown paper bags.
Grief is part of life, but it’s a hard part, as poet John Sibley Williams describes in his new poetry collection Disinheritance. Grief is a way to recognize, process, and deal with loss, but the loss is never really behind us. Grief is an expression of our DNA—of where we come from, whom we’ve loved, who has loved us and influenced us and shaped us.
These poems by Williams are the kind where you want to know the backstory, even if the backstory is a fiction. Who is this dead boy who never had time to write on the stars, in “A Dead Boy Speaks to His Parents”? Whose ashes are being released, the ashes that will “never breathe this air,” in “Eulogy”? And what kind of man is this grandfather, digging a double plot?
I ball the half-frozen river’s slack
numb around my fist, tighten
into ice. I will try to be less
hard next time.
Here in the gray
and two-dimensional house
we know the answer to rain.
A perforated black
arrow of birds moves
southward, away. Shrill reports
from every side and from the sky
the trajectory of abandonment.
Our surfaces are like the river.
Our circles have learned
to grow edges and crack.
Even the birds
we compare ourselves to
have left us.
Reading poems like those in Disinheritance leave one in an emotionally pensive mood. You remember grandparents. You think of teachers in high school who were near retirement half a century ago. You’re reminded of parents and friends. Perhaps most of all, reading these poems makes you realize that grief is an expression of memory and connectedness, that it is a good thing, a measure of the people you have loved and have loved you.
Williams is the author of the poetry collection Controlled Hallucinations and six poetry chapbooks. He is also a literary agent, editor of The Inflectionist Review, co-director of the Walt Whitman 150 project, and marketing director of Inkwater Press. He lives in Oregon.
Disinheritance is a beautiful, moving collection.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish