Skin Memory (The Backwaters Press, 2019) is the fourth book by John Sibley Williams, an award-winning poet and Pushcart nominee who has also published a number of chapbooks and whose work appears in several literary journals. In his previous books, he writes about collective memory, family and grief. Skin Memory is a book about survival. Intermingling internal, emotional landscapes, and those of nature, the collection depicts a journey through tragedy and pain toward a reconciliation with the past.
At the outset of the book, the speaker states his method of survival: “When it has been night this long / we learn to see with our hands,” adding that “truth is what I make of it.” Powerless, he gives himself agency by taking the pieces of his world and creating his own reality out of them.
Indicative of what he was up against, he says, “Some- / times it’s good not to see the bottom / or know if you’ve made it that low”; and indeed, initial poems appear under such dark titles as “Spectral,” “Nocturne,” and “It Was a Golden Age for Monsters.”
Williams’s personal story and that of the earth comingle in these poems. At one level, the speaker talks about nature and the damage done to it; while on another level, nature is a metaphor for the individual. I hear not one but two histories when the speaker says that “we walk over old fires as if history cannot burn us,” and two “stories” when he says:
dies for long is a story we tell ourselves
to make the earth easier to sing, to
convince the earth we may have once
added something to it.
A rebuke for our mistreatment of the land as if our behavior will have no lasting consequences, this is also a comment on our personal stories and how we relate to our individual past. Honing in on the personal tragedy, with surgically precise metaphors, the speaker in “Dewpoint” touches the epitome of an abuser’s power over his victim:
And it starts
with a moth caught in a lidless jar
or barn fire horses beating themselves
against the frame of a wide open door,
nettles and unmended cuff, fraying,
the full force of a father’s fist:
I could not but wince at how brutally these powerful images hit their target. Throughout this collection, I encountered the speaker’s repeated efforts to reconcile beauty with horror, wishing he “could reconcile the fullness / of the moon, of the black oak… // with the bodies I’ve seen / in photographs hanging from / an oak.”
Just as we cannot shed our skins, so the speaker cannot shed his memories. But he can learn to live with them. More than that, comparable to our use of skin memory in order to heal after an injury, the speaker strives to take ownership of his past in order to heal. In a poem titled “We Can Make a Home of It Still,” the speaker tells his daughter that “it’s not so bad wearing wet clothes to / school sometimes. You’ll get used to the cold cling. It’s not so bad / getting used to things…Like the luminous trees out back with beasts living in them.”
The imagery in this book is stunning. The poem “New Farmer’s Almanac” is emblematic of Williams’s poetic wizardry, as the speaker creates a link between damaged land and damaged childhood in a manner that is almost breathtaking. Talking initially about “spent crops” and “burnt seed,” he goes on to say that “Everything else is an orphanage,” and ends with a child who:
up on tiptoe, cranks
the hands of a clock
there may be some music
left inside tomorrow.
I find these among the most poignant lines in a collection filled with poignancy—the child, naive and misguided, trying to rise above his painful circumstances and alter the rules of nature in order to find something beautiful.
One of the themes running through this book is the healing power of writing poetry. Following a quote from Joan Naviyuk Kane, “that poems are a form of resilience,” the speaker continues, “Because you are what song breaks open your throat.” Toward the end of the collection, this sentiment comes to full-throated expression.
The inherent power of poetry to facilitate the speaker’s eventual reconciliation with his past is brilliantly displayed in the following segment, where the words themselves become the vehicle through which everything merges into something new, surreal and wonderful:
Whatever it was we needed returns
in unrecognizable forms. The tear in
a screen door, letting winged things
loose inside. The white-tailed deer
on a field’s edge, closer, so close it
dissolves in my hands. Spilled glass
of expired milk. How we can’t stop
drinking it off the kitchen floor. On
all fours, as if in prayer, drinking up
the pale face, rippled, looking back.
Recording in real time the integration and transformation of past and present, this scene expresses the fulfillment of the wish for wholeness. There is something almost holy about the liminal space depicted here; the word “prayer” comes to mind almost before the speaker utters it. Moreover, he leaves the door open, for himself and all of us, to experience those numinous moments if we are sufficiently attentive.
The resilience of the speaker is inspiring. “We are here; this happened,” he says. Yet he does not stop there:
I want to be recognized for what I’m not,
yet. I want to show I burn, and burn bright
as the gods we’re meant to fashion ourselves from.
Bright as rage, as a goodbye, as a throat
unzipped to give the bullets their voice. If finally
this voice becomes the sound a man makes. Something like
the sound a man is supposed to make.
The speaker has traveled far from the beginning of his journey. Just as this book speaks to the strength of memory as “a language that’s survived its skin,” it is also a reminder that we all have agency over the individual narratives of our lives.
As I read and reread Skin Memory, the more riches it revealed to me. With its haunting and multi-layered imagery, it provides a profound and lingering experience.