John Sibley Williams – Cradlesong

John Sibley Williamsl LE P&W February 2019

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Cradlesong, poems by John Sibley Williams

John Sibley Williams is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize, 2019), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, 2019), Disinheritance, and Controlled Hallucinations. A nineteen-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Philip Booth Award, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, The 46er Prize, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize, Confrontation Poetry Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: The Yale Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, Poet Lore, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, Columbia Poetry Review, Mid-American Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, and various anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon.



See how the unfed roots of the tree
with nothing but shadow growing under it

burst from hard winter earth, handward.
How the long scar a dam cuts into a river

makes a constellation of our city & keeps
the night at bay. That even having lost

one dimension your dead grandmother’s
face in this photo still catches & frames the light.

Under just the right conditions, regardless of instinct,
any man can be molded into a kind thing.

Even me.

Yes, yours are the same bars a prisoner
stabs his hands through to get at

another’s throat, or to hold, briefly,
a lover’s cheek. See how every touch

opens or closes a wound. How the river
is always revising. Even if it’s never been true,

how necessary it is to believe: sometimes
an empty, oarless boat finds its land.


You push hard from behind. Earth
runs perpendicular beneath. My feet
strike the air in great blows meant
to ward off the gods. Those wished-
upon stars not so unattainable, cold.
I am no longer just a body wrapped
in body wrapped in impossibilities.
Where something brutal once hung,
a plank of wood & two cuts of rope.
When we cannot conjure metaphors
of our own, we borrow, repurpose.
Thrust & trust. Sweet sweet sway.
It all feels too much like sex for me
to think of childhood. I cannot tell
which of us is entering & which is the
door we are hoping to close.


A road, once. Kicked-up dust & destination
enthused by promise. That all things believed in

are attainable. That these boxes we fill over &
over again with the photos & watches & unstruck

matches that together are meant to assemble a life
in fact assemble a life. At some point you

just stop counting the years between homes,
stop expecting movement to soften the bite

of the past, stop asking the sky for worldly things.
At the end of what you’ve named, a whole

town resplendent & new & ready to dull
in your mouth. The way it takes a body

or vein of water to call a strand of sand
shore, so it takes knowing a place like both

a soft palm & the slap of a hand to say
 I am here. The way it takes two wars

to call the months between peacetime,
it takes seeing your father naked of

fatigues & flags, crumbled on the cold
kitchen tiles, wailing, feigning prayer,

like any man who thinks the world isn’t
looking, to say I know; I’m hungry too.


—inspired by ‘Christ Carrying the Cross’ by Hieronymus Bosch

Silence in din. The calm
an uproar calls its heart.
Not that I’d consider
crucifixion heart
or wood angled hard
against wood a good
place to hang a body.
But there’s something
about the condemned:
that slight shade of guilt
on my father’s face
when my mother began
her dismantling: blood
on the pillow kindled
by moonlight: the murderer
watching his rope knot. No,
not all of us will outlive
tomorrow morning.
Most cities built on
the bones of other
cities will burn brief
& bright & themselves
be renamed. They say the sky
can be broken into syllables
no mouth can pronounce.
I have no idea what it means
to settle for beauty.


I hold the board book like a shield:
green spears of grass, impossibly white skies,

a stippled sun massaging a field where talking
animals never seem to eat each other.

As if our story can be told without that kind
of hunger. As if learning to read means something

different now that the world can be contained
behind page & screen. There are too many words

here to pinpoint where silence begins & where
silence should end. & I read every one every night

over their cribs like a protection spell, a mantra, an attempt
to convince myself. I know I should let them gnaw

away the spine, leave their mark, be marked. I’m terrified
I love this story too much to throw open the windows & let them see.

© John Sibley Williams