As One Fire Consumes Another
By John Sibley Williams
I’ve been reading John’s work for sometime and one realization that I have come to is that you have to read his work more than once, well, let me edit that, you want to read his work more than once. His poems are overflowing with thought-provoking thoughts and images and you find yourself pausing in between, contemplating, allowing his words to transport you to a new idea or perspective. The focus of this collection involves the fires we start, the fires we try to put out, the fires we have control over and those that have control over us. He touches on the past, the present, faith and violence in a way that makes you consider the matches that you may be carrying around with you in your back pocket. The collection is broken into three sections: Harm, Keeping the Old World Lit, and We Can Make A Home of It Still.
In the first section, he talks of fires burning like in “I Sometimes Forget This Isn’t About Us “ where he says:
Then last night the neighbors’ barn
burned down around two boys flush
with the exhausted calm following a
forbidden act of love. The language of
the town hasn’t quite caught up
with the dark-skinned girl left half-
dead in the watershed, how it risks
the football team’s winning streak.
This piece explodes with controversy, the idea that a “dark-skinned girl left half dead” could compromise the football team’s seasonal record demonstrates the sick imbalance that occurs in this society, how a life can be seen as less important than a football team winning. Then the title makes us ponder more, who is this about if not about us? What part do we take in the injustices that occur in the society that we live in? In another piece “No Island Is an Island & So Forth” further discusses responsibility when he writes, “Sign your name to ruined Civil War forts. Next time, use a Sharpie when listing your demands to god.” Dipping into the past, he asks us to consider the role that we all play in the hate that permeates our society. Then his last poem in the collection, “Reparation,” which is perfectly placed, further explores questions of responsibility.
Not only does he refer to the past, but also to events that are happening today like in “*Minotaur // Dylann Roof, “ “When instinct matures into will” and “No Evidence.” In “When instinct matures into will,” he writes:
Give me back the ache. Six children
killed in Kabul yet nothing stirs the
birds from our oak. The horizon sits
precisely where we left it. Fat with
faith. Fat, faithful, choosing what to
feel, feeling nothing.
Here, he questions how horrific events can occur and the world just goes on, birds don’t budge from the trees they rest on, and we, far away and watching, decide to feel nothing. Like in “No Evidence,” where Texas announced that there was no evidence of wrongdoing in regards to a mass grave filled with immigrants found in Texas in 2015. In the piece he writes, “The meaning we make from things depends on the camera’s eye.” I guess the question is always who is holding the camera and how do they want to see what they are looking at. Overall, I think all of these pieces do a fantastic job of touching upon responsibility.
In the second section of the collection, “Keeping the Old World Lit,” the poems seem to take a slight shift to the personal like in “Sovereignty:”
fathers are invented gods. And now I
am a father, inventing a world where
matchstick sailboats can set the
entire ocean ablaze. My children
take turns pulling me around our safe
green box of earth in a red wooden
wagon. It doesn’t take much to
convince the sky we have no idea
how to hold it.
What is self-government and freedom, why do some have a sense of safety and others are not afforded that luxury. In the third section, he touches upon freedom and the difficult task of understanding the complexity of the responsibility of freedom in “Fourth of July” when he writes:
We’re lying down in a buzzcut field
watching gut-shot night sparkle &
shower us all in a hot fizzled glow.
Hiding inside ourselves as children
unsure how a country works.
This poem clearly shows internal conflict, how one wants to have faith in sovereignty, but has a difficult time understanding how such heinous actions can take place. He shows how everything, including freedom, comes at a price. The fact is that we are all human, and often some people have more rights or maybe are allowed more leniency than others, which he writes about in the poem “Priviledge,” where he admits that they were treated differently because of the color of their skin, allowed to make youthful mistakes without harsh punishment: “Skin as white as rock salt. When the police drove us home again, without arrest.” Despite the many unjust observations made throughout the collection, there is still an overarching sense that faith can pull us through, that we can mend what has been ripped, but this will be no easy task because we have to admit something we are not all ready to admit as seen in the poem “The Children:”
If you fear it, child, fear it until risk
wears itself down to certainty: until
the monsters you’ve imagined under
your bed resemble your father, your
neighbor, your hands: until country
betrays its otherness.
We need to accept the fact that any of us can be a monster, that anyone can cause harm and inflict damage, not only to an individual, but to the society at-large through devious actions. Dylann Roof was a child once, a child who knew no hate, what happened? What role do we all have in the unraveling of our country, the unraveling of our freedoms? In this collection, Williams cleverly asks us questions and allows us the sovereignty to answer on our own free will. The beauty of his poems is that they are jam packed with ideas and images, and none forcefully direct you. The ideas and images act more like a choose your own adventure, where you can go where you want to go and that is what I love most about John’s work. You can read these poems hundreds of times and never end up in the same place.