“Skin Memory” by John Sibley Williams”— Searching

Williams, John Sibley. “Skin Memory”, (The Backwaters Prize in Poetry), The Backwaters Press, 2019.


Amos Lassen

I have always wanted to be a poet but have been too much of a coward to even try. Instead I read as much poetry as I can. One of the things I love the most about reading and reviewing literature is finding a new writer (new to me, at least) who says just what I need to here. One of the newer writers that I recently found is John Sibley Williams who with his first collection that I read became a friend. I was pleasantly surprised to receive an advance copy of his new collection of free verse and prose, “Skin Memory” which I have had for about three weeks now and have read at least four times.

We all react differently to poetry. I have my own rue about it and it goes like this. There are two hours in every day that I set aside for special interests. One of those hours is for the study of the Torah or the Five Books of Moses that I study in its original language for an hour a day, no matter what. The second hour is for poetry and granted an hour is not a long time and I can often spend several hours on a single poem, I am disciplined to do this every day (teaching on the college level for many years instilled a strong sense of self-discipline in me).

As I approached this new collection I was taken aback by the deep feelings with which it is written. Poetry ism by nature, personal but I got the sense that this was going to be more than that. The simple words of the first poem “Snake. Tree. Rope. Wall” prepared me to understand that we would be doing some serious soul-searching here—

“I know groping for names

 takes the form of prayer”.

I was immediately thrown into a world of personal tragedy and the quest for “tenderness and regeneration”. We begin our lives not yet knowing who we really are and we begin the journey that takes us from birth to death to life everlasting if you so believe. Along the way we build our identities just as John Sibley Williams does here through his poems. He takes us through “the capriciousness of youth, the terrifying loss of cultural identity and self-identity, and what it means to live in an imperfect world. He reveals each body as made up of all bodies, histories, and shared dreams of the future.” I believe that this is something we forget— we are individuals yet we are part of something greater than being singular entities and part of knowing who we are comes from the greater whole. Yet, living as individuals teaches us that we want to ne remembered when life is over; we want to leave an impression and an imprint on the world. And we do get the idea that each of us has something beautiful to leave behind.

Returning to the individual, we realize that there is something in each of us that connects us to everyone else and while not always positive, the interconnectedness is there and it, like the world is in a constant state of evolution. There is the dichotomy of cruelty and tenderness in all of us as there is the hope for peace for all humanity.

“we all want things.

      I, for example, want what I’ve lost”

In. Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie”, the character Tom tells us in his opening speech that the play is memory. Do we ever stop to realize, as we see here, that life is memory. Everything we do and everything we are is based upon what came before and as the title of one of the poems here shows “Death Is a Work in Progress”.

We see the differences between skin memory and blood memory as we see the world made up of diverse skins that give us our diverse world. Where we live is composed of bodies, memories, histories and dreams of those who populate and/or once lived on or earth. This earth is mysterious and is marked by our trials to be what we are to be.

What I find unique in this collection is that the poems are short and seemingly in “bits and pieces”. They are stories about  loss and love, abuse and maturing and they contain enough space between the words and the line that allow us to enter ourselves into each one. Above all, we see the importance of landscape as it weaves its way through the collection and what is memory after all but part of the landscape of our minds?

Granted I used only a few quotes here. I am on my third reading of the collection and I am overwhelmed.  Who knows what is yet to come to me…. that is the beauty of poetry.

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