By Abriana Jetté, Ph.D.
Sayreville, NJ, USA

When writing, it’s difficult if not impossible for me to predict where a poem will end. Because of this, even when I set out to write about something, even when I give myself a task of, say, writing about a specific current event or specific person, the poem decides, eventually, whether it wants to follow through. Because of this, I confess, I’ve found myself working slowly on two manuscripts of poetry at once rather than dedicating my focus to one. Sometimes this means that poems call out to one another, but are not connected. Sometimes, even when writing within the same week, even when hoping to write sibling-poems that will coexist in a manuscript, I write poems that appear more as distant-cousins, meant to live on opposite sides of the world.

I doubt that I’m alone in this process. I doubt I’m the only writer who has little control over what her words will. As is the nature of the craft, there are some stories that will always need retelling, and there are some stories better left unsaid.

I’ve been thinking about my writing process more intensely since reading the most recent work from John Sibley Williams, When One Fire Consumes Another (2019), alongside his follow-up collection, Skin Memory (2019). Published just seven months apart, the collections speak to each other in subtle ways, rendering poems prismatic of grief, violence, regret, and wonder.

John Sibley Williams

While When One Fire Consumes Another offers a more telescopic lens, the viewpoint of Skin Memory, at times, is microscopic. This is not to say that Williams’s work represents poetry at its extremes. It’s almost the opposite; his work presents readers with poems so acutely human that the hidden pain of the ordinary becomes palpable. In each collection, the speaker refrains from telling the entire story. Merged together, the books offer a holistic understanding of the way death, war, violence, grief, bias, and forgiveness infiltrate personal and national traditions.

When One Fire Consumes Another magnifies global issues of trauma in connection to how the speaker identifies and struggles with such identities. References of tragedy in the book range from 9/11 and its aftermath of the Iraq war, to a mass killing of immigrants found “inland from the U.S.-Mexico border” (“No Evidence”), to a neighbor’s barn catching fire (“I Keep Forgetting This Isn’t About Us”), to a bomb blast in Kabul (“Dear Noah”). It makes sense for the collection to grasp at each of these tragedies, as they are not disconnected, and, as the title insinuates, once one match is lit, it’s not so hard for the rest to catch a flame. Each individual suffering brings universal consequences.

In contrast, Skin Memory exists to diminish the spaces separating concepts of the body (skin) and the mind (memory), the father and the son, the living and the dead. Most intensely, the speaker battles what has been said and what was never said. That is, the sound and the silence. The collections communicate with one another through this structural division. What was left unanswered in When One Fire Consumes Another has an answer, or a reasoning, in Skin Memory.

Opening Skin Memory is the titular poem, which begins: “Because skin has a memory all its own and because memory is a language that’s survived its skin.” Our skin’s memory conjures up feelings of temperature, of smoothness, of rigidness, and of pain, which, is, more or less, what the poems in the collection do. Readers experience varying degrees of emotion and feeling. Poems travel to “The opening to hell” which “is the mouth of a / mountain in Iceland or anywhere” in “Hekla (Revised)” to the frigid air of north Michigan to the boiling lava of St. Helens. “Dear Nowhere”, specifically, chronicles the speaker’s directionless voyage across the United States, from “Butte, Montana,” to “alongside the Inside Passage, Alaska”, to “Gettysburg, Pennsylvania”, as he travels across the vast continent responding to and belonging to, in many ways, to no one.

What separates the speakers most in Skin Memory and When One Fire Consumers Another is the direct confrontation of grief. In Skin Memory, the voice is mournful, coming to terms with loss, whereas in When One Fire Consumes Another, the speaker still writes about what wonders and joy the role of being a father brings him, as detailed in “July 4”, a poem that draws attention to the political binaries of the American landscape, and the speaker’s daughter’s wish for togetherness. In When One Fire… “The Invention of Childhood” teases at the loss of a child through the purposeful enjambment in its opening line, which begins: “The day after I buried my daughter / in poorly-folded origami swans…” Here, the immediate reaction of a burial is directly contrasted by the soft white of paper folded delicately into a swan.

The speakers in each collection do not directly confront the days leading up to death and burials, but they are alluded to. In Skin Memory, the suffering caused from loss, whether it is the loss of a parent, a brother, or a child, has been lingering so long within the speaker’s soul, it is heavy and sweaty and seeps from his skin. For instance, in “Absence Makes the Heart”, the speaker fixates on the idea that his son “has not yet found a reason to / love or hate the silence” around the house, the noticeable silence caused by the absence of another’s presence. At the end of the poem, the speaker confesses that it hurts to love so much. What he does not say, does not need to say, is that the loss hurts even more.

Within his rhetoric and his content, William plays with doubling. Like bits of gossip, poems from Skin Memory communicate between pages. Pieces like “Adagio” and “Variations on a Theme” engage opposing issues of what to say and not say. For instance, “Adagio” begins:

                  “Please don’t say you can see my father’s father in my face when I
                       cry over fireflies, dimming.”

where as “Variations on a Theme” begins:

                  “Say horse.
                    Say the fencing has rusted to bits and we are tracking

                    an escaped horse deep into the night.”
In “Variations on a Theme” the repetition is not just for rhythm’s sake, but the idea of retelling and reengaging with content. Each revision brings a new version. First, there is just a horse. Then, the horse is escaped, running in the deep night. In another light, the horse is being hunted by those who live behind the rusted fence. In the same light, the poems “There is Still” and “Swing” respectively concern themselves with oscillation, whether it is a child “pushing hard from behind” to bolt into the sky on a swing, or philosophical issues of “swinging” at content good enough to write about, good enough to remember.

The collected works found in When One Fire Consumes Another and Skin Memory demonstrate a poet whose voice ranges from Cormac McCarthy-like descriptions found in “Off Season”, which opens, “Blood spills across the snow like lit / kerosene” to lyrical moments like that in “Than the Dead”, which describe how “Someone  has / spilled the moon all down our night- / black walls.” From the blood within us to the moon that moves us, John Sibley Williams heightens the importance of the American landscape through personal and national tragedies and joys.  

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 nineteen-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a poetry editor and literary agent.



Abriana Jetté is the author of the Amazon #1 bestselling women's poetry anthology 50 Whispers. Her newest poetry anthology, Stay Thirsty Poets - Vol. I, was released in February 2019.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.