A review of John Sibley Williams' Skin Memory, winner of The Backwaters Press Prize
By Stephen Scott Whitaker
John Sibley Williams’ newest collection, Skin Memory, the winner of the 2019 Backwaters Prize, captures the agitation grief and loss stir up in us. Williams’s newest collection is rain-soaked in past emotional and rural landscapes where nature runs riot, even in winter. Part of the collection’s ethos is control, and Williams deftly shapes the Memory via blocks of poetry, suggesting that through creation, through the naming of things, one can control the worst impulses that lay just under the skin, be it grief, suicidal ideation, or the hard work of making a home.
The opening poem, “Skin Memory”, begins with an epigraph from Joan Naviyuk Kane, regarding the resilence of the language of the Inupiaq, an indigenous people of Alaska, and the resilience of poetry and how both are necessary. It’s an apt epigraph for the collection which explores the intersections between the physical body, skin, nature, and humanity’s perpetual pitfalls, loss of loved ones, and careless husbandry of mental health. The epigraph itself is a kind of tattoo upon the collection, which reminds time and time again that people and events leave impressions, scars, and bruises upon our bodies and spirits. The poem declares:
“Because you are what song breaks open your throat and because the
same century burns a different mark into me...To the dark little narratives of
this is mine / yours, in that order. Can you sing this country its name?”
Williams’s diction suggests danger. The curious “breaking throats” and “burns” and “dark narratives”, not to mention the slashed “mine/yours”--the only “broken” line in the block of prose poesy that begins Skin Memory. He frames the collections’ emotional picture. Skin Memory is a deconstruction of pain, and our relationship with that pain, and all of the other emotions that pain can urge. This is not easy work, either; words are either no help or the only way to ensure stability, for they are “anchors” in a world of “oars”. They sink us or stabilize us, sometimes accomplishing both over the long run. And Williams doesn’t offer answers, but he does offer hope.
Williams, for much of Skin Memory, seeks a spiritual solution. Not through a faith-based tradition, but rather through the act of creation and connection, be it through fatherhood, or through art, or through family and friendship. To survive and thrive we must control, to some degree, the past, and our most uncivilized emotions. In “Sons of No One” Williams stirs up a hungry, almost desperate voice of a speaker who has survived suicide, “So far all the suicides have been men/in my family/...it helps to remember the lake/beneath the desert the animals/cannot taste but know exists.” The speaker later traces the relationship between the dead, “To connect/each with my finger and name/this little universe after the gods/our god swallowed”. An endless circle of need and pain and want, the poem epitomizes one of Skin Memory’s motifs, the naming of things, and in the naming of them, possessing them, or at the very least controlling them. Creation through appropriation, perhaps, and at the very least creation through control. Selfishness, for sure, but divorced from avarice, but inflated with pride and reverse pride, for what Williams’ speakers seek to control, more often than not, is pain and loss. In “Everything Must Belong Somewhere” Williams’ speaker says “What we make/might be called love in another language./ But we call it absence. We say almost.” Controlling the language, the narrative, if you will, of our emotional history is necessary. It’s how we grow and thrive. In “Variations on a Theme” Williams employs incantatory rhythm to express the urgency of language and its power in our emotional lives. “Say horse./ Say the fencing has rusted to bits and we are tracking.../Say home./Say we are trying to name what we’ve built to complete it.” A poem, at times, that feels like a conversation with Larry Levis, particularly “Elegy With A Thimbfull of Water in the Cage”, an incantatory winding narrative about the Sybil, irretrievable language, and the poverty of language, and the poverty of the spirit. While Levis’s poem bends toward despair, Williams’ poem bends towards hope and love, “Say love,/how we round our empty mouths to say it.” The collection’s emotional trajectory swells towards home, towards love, towards healing, and acceptance ”that how we “weather it will not save or deface us”, and that that “whatever finally breaks” us, we “cannot refuse it.” The final poem, “Forge” is both a noun and a verb, a command, and a definition. Survive, thrive, breathe.
Structurally, Skin Memory primarily uses blocks of verse to shape the collection, using traditional prose poems as well as poems that are crafted to lay in perfect rectangles and squares on the page. Skin Memory also employs more traditional free verse poems, and semi-formal poems, but the collection’s overall aesthetic highlights the beauty of carefully shaped blocks of poetry, which reinforce the internal conflicts of Skin Memory. Shape our world or be shaped by it.
Stephen Scott Whitaker (@SScottWhitaker) is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the managing editor for The Broadkill Review. Whitaker is a teaching artist with the Virginia Commission for the Arts, an educator, and a grant writer. His poems have appeared in Oxford Poetry, The Scores, Crab Creek Review, Third Wednesday, among other journals. He is the author of four chapbooks of poetry and a broadside from Broadsided Press. Mulch, his novel of weird fiction is forthcoming from Montag Press in 2020.