John Sibley Williams uses poetry for understanding culture and self
I grew up in a world where chalk used on driveways and sidewalks meant kids were exercising their artistic instincts or playing hopscotch. As poet John Sibley Williams reminds us in his newest chapbook, chalk on the sidewalk today can also signify a crime scene.
Skyscrape is a collection of 20 poems, a slender volume that packs a wallop. While it probes into contemporary issues like crime, guns, immigration, political fault lines, and race, it’s not a political diatribe. Instead, Williams turns the focus inward, attempting to come to personal terms with what so often seems to be tearing America apart, with no resolution in sight.
Contemporary society is so saturated with politics that one’s first inclination might be to turn away from a collection like this one. That would be a mistake. Williams softens the edges by raising the issues in the context of his own life, and the lives of his children. He doesn’t turn the personal into the political so much as he asks how the political is playing out in the context of the personal. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s an important one.
And you learn some things. For example, you may not have heard of Minidoka; it was an Idaho “relocation center” for Japanese-Americans during World War II. We might understand the war hysteria that gripped America after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but the mass incarceration seems brutal and almost stupid. Try understanding that in the context of the personal. But Williams does it, using a child’s doll in “Pantoum for What Remains from Minidoka.”
Three poems in the collection bear the same title, “sky burial.” They are about refugees, immigration, and the complexities surrounding those issues, but they also become personal. This is the first one.
the sea is called / a body & the children
/ are still dying / so far from here / & here
sometimes / bones rearranged into / drowned
or dragged off skyward / biopsied or blood-
slicked pavement / at night / when the white
pines cut against an un- / white sky / history
moving its mouth / without speaking / my
daughters who are beginning / again to look
like other / like bullets exiting / our country’s
borrowed language / white / language / rage
& hue / what I cannot hold / of them I hold
so close the sea / still a body / aches & sings
its shame / aches & sings & washes clean
all evidence / that to be an echo means once
you wailed / once the sea & sky & white white
stars / & their bodies / still living inside us—
Sibley has published numerous poetry collections, including Autobiography of a Fever (2011), From Colder Climates (2012), Controlled Hallucinations (2013), Disinheritance (2016), Skin Memory (2019), As One Fire Consumes Another (2019), Scale Model of a Country at Dawn (2022), and The Drowning House (2022). His poems have been published in numerous literary and academic journals, and he’s received several literary awards for his work. He received an M.F.A. degree in creative writing from Rivier University and an M.A. degree in book publishing from Portland State University. He lives with his family in Oregon.
The poems of Skyscrape point toward understanding and resolution. They suggest that might happen by understanding the connection to the personal. Nothing more effectively divides people than demonizing and objectifying one side as “the other.” Williams says to start with something else: look within.
Poets and Poems: John Sibley Williams and Disinheritance
Photo by Joel Olives, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Glynn Young.
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
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