Loss, the pain that accompanies such an experience, and the process of re-purposing that pain to a greater cause are concepts many authors attempt to grasp and grapple with through language; readers hope to catch a glimpse of themselves in the pages, looking for a reflection of their own lives expressed in the words staring back at them. This reflection of self has been painted beautifully upon the pages of Skin Memory, John Sibley Williams’ latest collection of poetry. Williams manages to capture the essence of life, both joys and pains, triumphs and regrets, in a way that reflects a broader experience transcending generational and cultural differences.
The poems depict an array of memories and their resulting emotions, referencing numerous ties to the collective human experiences of pain and growth, and magnifying these experiences using natural, sometimes idyllic, language. In a poem attempting to cope with the suicides of those close to him, Williams writes, “It helps to draw them hungry / clusters of light loping across the night / sky, such flames in their bellies. To connect / each with my finger and name / this little universe after the gods / our god swallowed to give us / a glimpse into creation.” Williams’ language is both captivating and haunting, expertly expressing the dark and light of humanity through peaceful, yet foreboding, representations of natural landscape. This mirroring of experience and organic imagery reflects the ways in which memories haunt both mind and body, described as he writes, “Please don’t say you can see my father’s father in my face when I / cry over fireflies, dimming. This porch cannot sustain both sky and / shadow. Shadows: shifted and lengthened by dawn. Ancestors: / earth-swallowed, de-starred, god enough for now. Our universes / hold together by strings and cups strung between men speaking softly / to each other like children.” Williams seems to be searching for personal identity in this confessional-style poem, looking to the intangibility in the moment as a way to root himself to a father, or possibly a God, that he is unable to grasp and hold close.
Skin Memory depicts the beauty of human existence while allowing space for the reality of modern life, regrettable decisions, and unexpected misfortunes. The poems are written in styles that switch from an uninterrupted column of text to a free form without any recognizable patterns and then back again, a method that draws the eye down the page, pulling the reader along in a blurred trajectory from recollection to reflection. Williams blends this amalgamation of experience, grappling with the transience of life: “Every few thousand years the holy betrays us: ash / darkens firmament, fire surges from a / dying culture’s mouth. 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.” As the book progresses, Williams takes the readers on a journey of possibility and reclamation, searching for the ties between the past and present. He also weaves in the important theme of longing—a desire for the memories of the future to be made more purposeful—perhaps even more beautiful—by re-purposing pain in a different light, with a different intention, and through a more hopeful eye: “There Is Still / something thin to swing from madly /over the glory-faded cottonwood. A / different kind of rope & knot, sure, / & a different purpose. But our limbs / haven’t changed much; all ascent & / greed. The sky yielding just enough / of itself to urge us higher.”
Williams uses language which conjures a sense of the bucolic, allowing readers to explore their own associations with memory and past, culture and ancestry, experience and emotion. In this way, he manages to translate his own history into a representation of the universal experience of losing times passed and intentionally stepping, with hope, into the moments still to come, a personal confrontation all readers can identify with. Skin Memory is a beautiful reclamation of past pains and beauties, allowing readers to once again experience the sensations of life—of lifetimes, even—as it has been written upon our very bodies. Williams forces us to come to terms with our own hopes and failures, immerse ourselves in our own humanity, and recognize what it means to live within a collective experience: “The theory goes / we’ve been told the moon / is composed of so many / impossible things / we’re left to pray to / whatever we can make / spark. Dammit, we can / make the world spark / for a night. I believe all / our little massacres / are held together / by Scotch tape / steadily and sadly / unsticking.”
Rachel Harper is a student at the University of Tennessee pursuing an MA in English Literature. Her interest is on 19th and 20th century literature with a special focus on ecofeminism, religious critique, and how those elements are utilized in the Gothic genre.