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  • John Sibley Williams

Five Poems


for Charlottesville

This isn’t how I’m told halos work.

Two mock suns lighting up the low

horizon, as if competing for grace-

giving, as if at war with each other.

The borders of their brief bodies

converging in one great arc flanking

then eclipsing the real. An imagined

architecture of virtue. A pure white

history. Torchlight flickers & feasts,

flickers & feasts, flickers & feasts.

Whatever men think they stand for,

the old gods are toppling.

A Hole in the Light is a Hole & is Light

Extinct, without first making its way through

threatened, endangered, protected; worse,

we never had the time to admire our empathy. No

viral campaign, no documentaries

or great ships curling up into northern seas to beg

a Japanese whaler to sheath its harpoons.

This is the kind of promise we just might keep.

A photograph broken into customary thirds:

man, the cherished object he’s holding, background.

No animal comes right out & asks for it,

but I’m pretty sure we can read their absent songs

as just that, as in this overabundance of beauty

there was no more room to put it anyway,

as a father’s death can mean

just that: both I’m sorry, so sorry, truly & now

there’s a bit more air for me to breathe.


Now winter devours everything

left unharvested. & like it or not,

the dead still don’t speak from

the candles we’ve lit for them.

In hindsight, that stuffed man

crucified over our garden never

kept the crows from the seedlings.

Everything outlives everything else.

This catalog of no-longer-believed-in

gods has gotten us this far. The map

on the back of my mother’s hands

turned out to be veins raised bluely

by chemo. Still it was something

to follow, something with an end.

I hear rail service is finally returning

to our emptied little town. Is it true music

pressed flat into echo is what keeps this

wide white world, if not inhabited, habitable?

All the names of all the men,

especially the forgotten, are here at our kitchen table asking

for something they can taste. Our mouths perform

the usual rituals: tear into, grind, swallow, then recount

exaggerated narratives of how we spent our days. We listen

for pauses long enough to interject, pivot attention our way. The dead have

nothing to offer but stories. & names. The names

they offer could be anyone’s aunts or uncles, lovers, murderers,

children. They no longer belong to just one

body, one inimitable life. Not that we give them the time it takes

to be re-remembered, mourned, properly mourned,

which in some cultures means celebrated. We are a moving-on kind

of people. A let sleeping dogs lie kind of people.

This house, this one room in this one house, at just this moment:

that is our axis of orbit. Not a philosophy but gesture.

Not a history, just ghosts. Without names. Only when I’m asking

for forgiveness do I call the absence beside me father.

A History of Skin

I’ve played out the Cowboy/Indian

narrative by myself in dark wooded

corners where trees hold each other

so damn tight the sky erases itself. I

remember beating my t-shirt against

rocks to get the blood out, how dirt

brown the stains set, how stone isn’t

the best salve. Turn a switch around

& spear becomes rifle, son turns to

man. Please bury me like this, I said

to no one who could hear me. Gray

as bathwater, as the palette between

skins, one not really mine, the light

passed through a thousand branches

before failing to find me. I opened

& closed. If every good story begins

with a lie, this is mine: once a boy

who played both sides of slaughter

returned home with a bloody shirt &

thought that would absolve him.

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. An eleven-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, 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.

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