A Review of As One Fire Consumes Another by John Sibley Williams
Poetry is an imperfect attempt to acknowledge, sometimes lament, the inevitable gulf between our experiences even as we seek to bridge that distance.
Guest writer Andrew Rihn reviews As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Books, 2019) by John Sibley Williams.
What is most immediately striking about the poems in John Sibley Williams' collection As One Fire Consumes Another is their shape on the page. Each poem is justified left and right, running down the pages as a single thin column. Jacket blurbs describe these columns as “boxes” or “brilliant little cages” or even “a different sized coffin” for each poem. It is a constraint, a conceit that both highlights and nullifies the traditional poetic line break. The language contained within Williams' thin columns is sharp, fastidious, and often filled with orders, imperatives, directions.
Take the poem “The Crossing.” It opens with a demand: “Tell me what not to do with heaven-faced children torn between parents who are torn apart by a river tearing a long muddy scar into this long & lengthening landscape.” The demanding “tell me” is repeated throughout the poem until halfway through, where we encounter the moderated line “Don’t tell me the best way to break a body without damaging the shell.” What at first blush reads as a demand reveals itself as something softer: a request maybe, an entreaty. We follow this transition until the last line is presented as a challenge, a dare, almost a taunt: “Please tell me what road that begins in ruin ends somewhere beautiful.” This poem typifies the subtle, rhetorical attention to language presented throughout the book.
Williams's book is in some ways its own response to that dare. As One Fire Consumes Another is broken into three sections. The first section “begins with ruin” and is loaded with the fraught language of American violence: Battlefield. Collateral. Charlottesville. Plantation. Dylann Roof. Lynching. Detainee. Sections two and three end up “somewhere beautiful” as they excavate the local soil of family, home, and childhood.
I'll confess to feeling not a little consternation reading Williams's first section. Not because the subject is often violence, but because I could not shake the feeling of distance, of remove. As if I was not reading about violence so much as reading about someone's experience of reading about that violence. The violence is abstract, never visceral. It feels at times like a poetry of mediated outrage—of having read about atrocity and decided that yes, it is indeed atrocious. The columned poems begin to feel journalistic, like a newspaper columnist reporting on the pain of others. Yet this is a distance I can empathize with as a writer, a citizen, a human being. It is an unavoidable fact of existence, and I suspect an unresolvable fact. The question is, what do we make of such distance? Poetry is an imperfect attempt to acknowledge, sometimes lament, the inevitable gulf between our experiences even as we seek to bridge that distance.
In sections two and three, Williams attempts to create those bridges, however fleeting, however ephemeral, as he reflects upon fatherhood and family. In the poem “Sovereignty,” he describes the chaos of a suburban yard strewn about with children's toys: green army men, dolls, Matchbox cars, and his lawnmower “making birdshot of each dandelion head.” What could quickly descend into a parent's tired complaint is buoyed by Williams's reflection: “For once, summer is what it seems: a trick of the light, a mistranslation, a castle of air.” Here, as in other poems, Williams ties childhood to imagination, just as elsewhere he laments the dulling effects of adulthood's manifold resignations. “And all fathers are invented gods. And now I am a father, inventing a world where matchstick sailboats can set the entire ocean ablaze.” He sees his happiness playing out in his yard, “our safe green box of earth,” the image contrasted by the final line, an elliptical statement: “It doesn’t take much to convince the sky we have no idea how to hold it.” The perspective in this poem, and many others, is shifting. There is the I and the you but there is also we.
Like “Sovereignty” or “The Crossing,” many of the poems in John Sibley Williams' collection engage dualities. Earth and sky. Self and other. Domestic and abroad. The violent and the tender. The prayer and the silence. Williams's poems shift and slip these binaries, though rarely is a third space so neatly explicit as I and you and we. More often Williams utilizes the tension of binaries to elicit metaphor, wonder. Central to the book, and the duality that seems to most readily connect the violence of the first section with the domesticity of the second and third, is the balance of cynicism and hope. Often a poem will begin with a cynical or skeptical tone that gives way to something hopeful: an expansive, open-ended metaphor (as in “Sovereignty”) or terse contradiction (as in “The Crossing”). Call it age or wisdom or poetic license, but the poems feel like they are making space for an abiding sort of faith, a relentless hope that rises even from the darkest of nights.
Williams works well within this ambivalence. Although the shape of the poems brings to mind newspaper columns (another binary elided: poetry/prose), he eschews the strident and didactic tone of the partisan. Williams wrestles his conscience across the page, never pinning it down but always willing to engage. His poems present a contradiction not fully resolved, a kind of faithless faith in action. This is, I think, itself a mercy. As discourse is increasingly dominated by sectarian points-scoring and ad hominem online dunking, the unresolved is a welcome respite.
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 twenty three-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, North American Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, and various anthologies. Visit him at www.johnsibleywilliams.com.
ANDREW RIHN is the author of Revelation: An Apocalypse in Fifty-Eight Fights, a collection of prose poetry about Mike Tyson. He also writes The Pugilist, a monthly boxing column for Into the Void magazine, where he is also a poetry editor. Andrew lives in Canton, OH.