America has always been at war. It has always gorged itself on war. In response, some of the best literature produced in the past century has transgressed the hawkish ethos that permeates the power echelons in our country. With As One Fire Consumes Another, John Sibley Williams joins the list of brave writers who speak against America’s violent, warring nature and produce something daring and distinctive in response.
Old Gods Toppling
Williams divides this collection into three sections, the first of which is titled “Harm”. Its first poem “Of Milk & Honey” asks, “But isn’t experience merely what men call their mistakes?” Here he reveals his orientation toward American aggression over the last three centuries. Yet for every time he points the finger, he recognizes the flaws he carries too. And while he often engages the disheartening nature of his themes, he never loses hope, as in his poem “Sundogs” that concludes by saying, “Whatever we think they stand for, the old gods are toppling.”
Whatever hope he retains the theme of war drumbeats beneath each poem, sometimes dormant, sometimes bursting to the surface. Williams matches the bravery of his thematic inquiry with a special beauty. His syntax is resonant, his scansion waterfalling down each page with such purpose that I am propelled, rendered nearly breathless, to each poem’s conclusion.
Though often quotable, the more impressive feature of Williams’ writing is how irreducible each poem feels. He makes of them such lively golems, arms and legs and head juddering from an everlasting heart, that to only describe a hand or an ear betrays what each piece is able to accomplish when given a page all its own. My pen was no stranger to underlining massive chunks within a poem, eventually conceding that a far better method was to place a star next to a poem’s title as indication of its holistic resonance. I placed many stars atop poems by the time I finished this book.
Williams’ writing often feels spiritual and he does well to leverage the religious aura his poetry delights in crafting, particularly in such Biblical poems as “Dear Noah” and “Dear Jonah”, the latter of which features lines I cannot help but quote: “Without shrapnel, / your father’s chest would simply be another unplayed instrument.” People will always try to fit music to their violence. Williams would have us use different instruments that make for other music.
Heaviness and Hope
The heaviness certainly outweighs the hope for much of this collection. And it should in dealing with America’s sins, our country’s penchant for building atop bones and pretending the bones were never humans to begin with. So it becomes all the sweeter when Williams begins the final section of this enchanting book with the section title, “We Can Make a Home of It Still”, even while many of the poems that follow carefully show how diminished and vulgar our home has always been.
Williams’ indomitable spirit is not worth celebrating because he is an American latching onto true American values. Those were always a sham. Instead, he is worth celebrating because of something much better. He is simply a human, recognizing what kind of a home we should live in, sketching out the ways we might stop tearing off the roof and conjuring storms from ever-angered skies.
For all the blood and dirt and darkness, even though Williams admits “There is no boat big enough to un- / ruin,” in his poem “Dear Noah”, he still latches onto hope as the final note. Knowing as he does that for all its cruelty, this world can never eliminate fully humanity’s better side. I find myself unable to resist quoting him one last time through his concluding poem “Toy Boat” when he notes, “I / hope we are found to have lived / without illusion, sailed without / wind.”
As One Fire Consumes Another is published by Orison Books.