Skin Memory by John Sibley Williams is about the impressions and imprints we leave on the world. Both physically and psychologically, Williams recognizes the haunting interconnectedness of all things, the ever-evolving nature of the world and the scars we trade with it. While dissecting humanity’s cruelty toward nature and itself, he yet invokes a tenderness, a final hope that maybe we can still bend our swords into plowshares.
“How choreographed our forgetting,” Williams writes in the opening poem, “Skin Memory.” But he knows nothing is really forgotten. Only submerged, memories held in us, etched deep, as he continues,” To the dark little narratives of / this is mine / yours, in that order. Can you sing this country its name?”
Names hold power. So too the act of naming. And Williams conjures an old power in his poetry through this act of naming the cruelty and the remembrance as he says, “memory is a / language that’s survived its skin.” Through any shedding or molting, something remembers.
It is brave and it is noble that Williams would have us share in this remembrance. These poems are made to make us confront our complicity, our discomfort, so beautifully wrought that they become impossible to dismiss, whatever our internal fragilities. In “Hekla (Revised)”, he explores the heat of history and the facile attempts we make at pretending its coals don’t burn our feet. “Lava hardens into / landscape, and we walk over old fires / as if history cannot burn us,” conjuring that easy line about history repeating when we ignore it, before he presses on, “That nothing / dies for long is a story we tell ourselves / to make the earth easier to sing, to / convince the earth we may have once added something to it.”
And I think about the heartbreak we cause in our ignorance, in the extinction of entire species and the growing danger of our emissions. His poetry breeds contemplation that ultimately leads to energy instead of ennui as so often feels the case when confronted with our failings.
Impossible to Run Away
Williams’ poems constantly transcend the page, branching outward, tangent upon tangent, creating a web of emotion and depth. For all they contain, they are trying to get us to pay attention, to remember with more than cast-off skin. In “Nocturne” I think of both nature and humanity when he writes, “There are many ways / to scream so no one hears.” And follows it later in “Killing Lesson” as he points to society’s inculcation of oppression in each new generation with the cutting line, “Pretend we can revise.” Then in “Star Count”, a poem of astonishing ache and clarity about men hunting animals, he concludes by saying,
I’m trying so hard
to imagine buckshot as constellations.
I don’t know how many dead birds it
takes to empty the sky.
Williams is masterful at placing himself inside the moments he crafts, inviting the reader along such that it becomes impossible not to admit our complicity in the damage humanity has caused itself and the planet. It becomes equally impossible to run away. Finally, we are given a mirror that holds our gaze. And as much as Skin Memory is a warning, made clear in “We Can Make a Home of It Still” where he notes, “Everything has a breaking point built / into its architecture,” hope remains a separate, unquenched fire.
Nothing that has been done can be undone. No, Williams is too smart to advocate naiveté or retreat. He calls for something better: action. “Forge”, this collection’s resonant concluding poem, reminds us, “We are here, this happened: a / simple record. If we’re lucky, a catalyst.”
Skin Memory is published by The Backwaters Press, an imprint of University of Nebraska Press.