Wednesday, April 5, 2017

John Sibley Williams in the Wilderness of Home

John Sibley Williams, disinheritance: poems

Veteran Portland, Oregon, poet John Sibley Williams writes like somebody carrying the weight of his ancestry in a backpack. You know, the big frame backpacks that excessively manful men wear while spending a long weekend getting lost up Mount Hood. The sprawling metaphor makes sense when reading his poetry, because Williams mixes liberal doses of nature imagery with deep feelings to coax meanings across the breadth of his book.

And what meanings they are. Williams explores themes of bone, ash, ghost: whatever traces the dead leave among the living. This may involve dark autumns along “Bone River,” a single poem Williams disarticulates into four segments throughout his book. This may involve a Dead Boy, a mysterious figure Williams has perform various enigmatic tasks, like Martyr His Mother or Fashion the Grand Canyon From His Body.

Like the best poets, Williams doesn’t permit simplistic, literal-minded interpretations of his verse. Overworked English teachers cannot (or shouldn’t) simply ask, what is the poet trying to tell us here. But as his themes develop across the range of his book, we realize there is nevertheless a current running, riparian, through his verse. Consider this representative passage from “The Cultural Narrative of Clouds”:
The sky is a girl abandoned naked by the river,
clouds swollen and purple
by light’s unthinkable angle.
Too young to spell moon
or her mother’s name.
Born ghosted. An offered fig
at the foot of the temple.
John Sibley Williams
In early poems, readers could be forgiven for thinking Williams places emphasis on river, clouds, light. His use of wilderness imagery looms so large, I initially believed Williams had written a love song for the Cascadian forests. But it doesn’t take long to realize a parallel river permeates Williams’ forest. The forlorn child, lost, abandoned, or dead, leads these verses from behind. Clearly something personal, something not obvious, dominates Williams’ thinking.

One should resist the desire to impute too much signifigance to individual titles. Especially in today’s narrow poetry-reading world, the ironic contradiction between title and content is a beloved device. Yet besides Dead Boy and Bone River, which between them constitute nearly a quarter of Williams’ titles, we have exemplars like “Miscarriage,” “Mother’s Day,” “Teething,” and one particular favorite, “Postpartum”:
He doesn’t know the consonants of our waste.
He can’t yet speak the vowels of ruin.
Perhaps it would be better if he never broke
from the frail bars of the cradle
into this vaguer cage.

I fear his sudden humanity.

So he won’t dream too far from things
I tear north from every map,
then I tear off the center. I take
down the photographs, sew shut the curtains,
go about eyes closed so he cannot see himself
in my mirror.
According to Facebook, Williams has young ’uns at home. This morbid taste of ash is paradoxical, but not wholly contradictory. It is, of course, dangerous to apply strict, one-to-one interpretations to poetry, especially non-objective poetry like Williams’. Poetry isn’t about a thing so much as the language experience. But Williams’ leitmotifs of Dead Boy, Miscarriage, and Mother surely bear consideration.

As a technical poet, Williams uses many popular motifs that readers have grown to expect. His expressionistic metaphors (“the consonants of our waste”) seem obvious once somebody voices them, but nobody did until Williams. Like many recent poets, he considers the left margin optional, and salts his poems with lacunae, which become more prominent as the book progresses, suggesting a mind caught in the frenzy of creative grief.

By the end, Williams’ themes have altered completely. Rather than getting lost in nature, the natural world becomes something he visits, a tourist destination with family on vacation (Grand Canyon). Rather than getting lost in the forest, trees become resources he consumes to shelter and protect his family. But sometimes, the resources he consumes in turn consume him, as in this passage from “Fertility”:
Can I say that a child died inside us
when all we have conceived is a name
for what could be?

We’ve built a cradle of nails and wood
to house a body too busy dying
to rest, a trophy of grief
we polish in case of tomorrow.
Williams basically invites us on a rugged journey into the heart of his pervasive melancholy. As George Bernard Shaw wrote, only the completely personal is truly universal, so as we venture into Williams’ struggles, we recognize ourselves, even we without children. His grief is ours, his glimpses of optimism between thunderheads our own. It isn’t easy. But it’s profoundly worth it.

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