John Sibley Williams authored 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. Awards include the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. Editor of The Inflectionist Review, John’s published in Yale Review, Verse Daily, North American Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly and more.
Before [we] close
our eyes to see
what night asks [us]
to let go
— Craig Santos Perez
Wondrous, not yet
polluted by beauty // the skeletal
shipwrecks as men [we’ll] hang our children from
by the wrists in photos to prove something
about lineage today swim
the shallows making nests for fish // before vow
-wels & consonants break seeing apart like rice in water //
before undertows, deprived of, all that longing for
a return to the impossible // before believing
with our hands steepled over cold
bodies already shedding their names // this is
the story [we’ll] forget; this is //
a story [we’ll] remember nooseless, hyphenated only by seabirds //
before the anchor’s hesitation, an overcast of doubt
-ful clouds // before [we] learn to call it prayer: this
sprigs of early morning light reach down to us
without pricking: hurt // [we] walk into the sea //
into what we don’t yet know is a sea // strapped
to our mothers’ chests // unbalanced, shivering, alive
Not that pitch-black darkness
the night wears as vellum broken
so briefly by stars.
Not the kind of agency that allows
a boy to write his own story on a canvas
crowded by so many less dangerous stories.
Not a reason, they say, to run
or stay put or raise your arms or not;
—for what it’s worth,
that wasn’t a trigger finger
cocked at the birds nesting on the power
lines above the cruiser. Not a stolen
cellphone in his pocket. Nothing unholstered.
Just a swath of picked cotton dyed black to
resemble a heart
after it’s learned the cost of loving so freely
or the full weight of trajectory.
Or both things
THE SCIENCE OF SOUND
—for Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
Turn phone landscape to view on mobile
Because it takes time
for the sound
to reach us
what we’ve witnessed
is already in the past.
Questioned. Digested. Forgiven.
We don’t even remember
what we’re meant
to do, having lost
so much in the interim.
To save face, we shriek, cover
our eyes, feign blindness.
We bathe ourselves in light. We say light
is the form things take
after all the dying is done.
& because all the dying is never done, we ask night
& in its silence ask our hands
& in their idleness stop asking
Call it wound—
Call it echo—
Because our ears never close
the past keeps ringing out
dark & true, this tired field
never quite hushed.
ALL EMPIRES END
That every fact’s at odds with another
makes this a bit easier to swallow. & that
most hungers aren’t instinct. I’m sure there’s
a word for that time of day not even
the light makes sense or how holding
certain phrases in the mouth too long
means you can no longer speak them
truthfully. Sometimes the myth a man makes
for himself unites the warring tribes
in us all. Sometimes, our undoing.
This may not be how it happens. Still.
If a mirage is meant to trick us toward
the undrinkable. As heaven. As we drink.
Right here, between the sincere & what we’ve
learned to accept as sincere, as between hands
balled into what could be punishment or prayer
or both at once, a country chaws off limb
after limb to save what some of us believe,
sincerely I think, a redeemable whole.
The dousing rods do their magic
& all of a sudden the ghosts that have always been here made semi-
visible converse as rivers
buried beneath the earth converse with the earth.
We are not the earth
in this scene, not its scarcity or bounty, just the tremor
that traces a length of spine when everything you thought lost
brushes the cobwebs from its mouth & speaks.
& we are not really listening, just trying to ask the right questions
& we are still not sorry.
As a teacup rockets across the room, shatters
against the wall, rains down curses, it’s easier now
that we have someone else