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, University of Nebraska Press, 2019), Summon (JuxtaProse Chapbook Prize, 2019), Disinheritance, and Controlled Hallucinations. A nineteen-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a freelance poetry editor and literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: Yale Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, and various anthologies.
The moon tonight is a nightlight
casting tiny shadows across the bars
of the cribs we never grew out of.
& that stuffed bear with one eye
wet from our constant suckling
stands in for our absent mothers.
Like hangnails we can’t stop ourselves
from picking into infection, the stars
splinter off from that greater body
of sky: acute, abrasive, alluringly
dangerous. & even summer’s swell
just drives home the cold. So we’ve
learned to press ice cubes to our chests
so they won’t melt as they do in whiskey,
incorporate myths into our histories
so they seem more real, fill a priest’s
ears with sins we never considered
committing but sound so good rolling
off the tongue. A stained glass symbol
hands itself over to truth the way a father
slips bills under a table when the bartender
tries to cut him off. There’s always room
for one more tall tale before heading home,
one more reason to put off repatriation,
one more key missing its cylinder before
finally catching & opening us up
to our great & future empire.
A different night maybe
the streetlight cutting
the paper-thin curtains
would strike your face
less like an open palm.
The moths wouldn’t be
beating themselves senseless
against the jar we keep
them in. The bruised eyes
we see through when trying
to see the world as it is
wouldn’t sting under ice.
Like a language we understand
but can no longer speak,
on such a night the facts
& our memories would carry
the same truth. Within winter’s
parched & broken skin maybe
a balm of roots, unfed roots
hungering for spring. The bed
creaking beneath us just might
sound like penitence; make-up
sex feel like grace, like coming
up for air when the river is at its
least forgiving. Falling exhausted
into forgive me, stay & at dawn
Hard to know if this is the right ritual.
Darkened room & candle. Hands
that have no idea what it means to
steeple, or atone. The truth is it’s no
easier comparing ourselves to the dead.
How my great-great grandfather tamed
his tiny corner of a wild country without
killing qualifies as a minor miracle. How
I’ve hurt so many without carving my name
into a single tree is equally wondrous. Maybe
this ache is just one body defining itself by another,
my mouth only filled with the usual promises. Forever
& the forever beyond that. Heaven, flame, etc.
If I’m doing this right, there’ll be nothing true
left in us but song. & when the singing’s done—
It’s not that the nails keep growing
but that skin recedes & can no longer
hold them; I know his blood-lined
lips aren’t evidence of resurrection
but that everything inside is beginning
to soften & simmer. Still I like to believe
curtains dancing over an open window
imply a returning; that these are demons
working my hands, & when I eventually
atone: gods; that the things keeping us
bound to each other refuse to untangle
when our breath becomes air & the air
sours. I tell myself all sorts of stories
to justify this wooden stake, this shovel
& torch & doubt, this cross so weightless
even the dead can bear it.
Whatever Mattered Before Is Mattering Again
—Each time, certain. Though more & more
belief replaces the thing itself. Calling the lightning
down to strike us so our children can start us up
anew is a ritual without flash or ruin. Or change.
We say some boats are just made for sinking
over the grave of a suicided friend & feel better
about our own untouched bodies for a moment.
Sometimes we just need the needing.
& it’s less His presence or absence, cruelty, long-awaited
mercy, that writhes these strange singing men & women’s
arms like unheld hoses going wild all over the lawn.
They’re reaching, madly; can feel their own reaching.
Maybe that’s enough; perfected, unattained. There’s something,
we’re told, more meaningful in a metaphor without object.
How what we lose ends up a memory. Hallelujah.
How what we love, another word for exit wound.
Would that I too save, be saved, take comfort
that there is only me as far as the saying it goes. Death
only in our grieving. These are not snakes, they tell us
through snake-heavy arms, but our taming of an untamable
world. Though I wouldn’t call any of this song, I envy
their singing it; the lightningless burn, boatless sinking.
Now touch me, love; uncertainly, ruinous, as evidence.
Tonight, let’s try to make of us a material gospel again.