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American Poet John Sibley Williams
Photo Credit: Poet’s Website

My Poetry Corner January 2021 features the poem “No Island Is an Island, & So Forth” from the poetry collection As One Fire Consumes Another (2019) by John Sibley Williams, an award-winning poet, educator, and literary agent. Born in 1978 in Massachusetts, Williams earned his bachelor’s degree at the University at Albany in New York in 2003. Then in 2005, he received a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Rivier University in New Hampshire. He moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2009 where he earned a Master of Arts in Book Publishing from Portland State University. He lives in Portland with his partner and twin toddlers.

Williams’ poetry collection As One Fire Consumes Another comes at a critical time in American history with the empowerment of white supremacist and white nationalist groups. Framing his poems in column-like boxes, resembling coffins, the poet confronts the violent side of American history and bears witness as one fire consumes an unending series of fires in our homeland, on our southern border, and in distant lands. In an interview with Jeanne Huff of Idaho Press, Williams confessed that he struggled in exploring the extent of his “personal privilege as a white, CIS, able-bodied male whose labors and strains are so trifling compared to others.”

In the poem, “Everything Must Go,” a house is portrayed with ghost-white covering sheets and that new coffin smell. Its mossed gables are weighed down by a full century. Out-of-synch always with the dark drift of history, and hopeful that these are not self-repeating tragedies, the poet proposes that we must sell off what we fear owning. To remain silent is not atonement for our dark history.

We have become so numb to the cruelty we inflict on others with our unending wars that nothing stirs the / birds from our oak when we learn that six children were killed in Kabul, the poet observes in “When instinct matures into will.” The horizon sits / precisely where we left it. Fat with / faith. Fat, faithful, choosing what to / feel, feeling nothing.

Fire also rages in the homeland. The poem “A Gift of Violence,” in memory of the Charlottesville riots in August 2017, speaks of the racist hatred still alive across generations.

 Memories of burning buildings raw
 & righteous. A grandfather’s flames
 passed down, undimmed. A full set
 of knives in the drawer without time
 to blunt from underuse. A city never
 quite white enough. A city furiously
 lit by misremembered histories… 

Even Noah’s ark would not be big enough to un- / ruin, no flood more violent than our / own, the poet laments in “Dear Noah.” Like a ghost haunted by itself, / we move along old scars terrified of / what would happen if left to heal.

As a nation, we remain disunited and self-destructive. Call it by its true name: schism, the poet declares in “The Bones of Us.” Before we were a country of / burning buildings & protest & want, / we were the same. A shining city on / a shining hill raised on the silenced / bones of others.

In the featured poem, “No Island Is an Island, & So Forth,” the poet calls on white Americans to consider the role they all play in the hate and violence permeating our society. Holding on to illusions of bygone glories serve only to sever our body politic.

 Sign your name to ruined Civil War
 forts. Next time, use a Sharpie when
 listing your demands to god. Instead
 of touching forehead to ground as if
 in supplication/ecstasy/grief, set fire
 to the old battlefield & let the winds
 unsever your strings to the past. In
 dust & degrees, redraw boundaries.
 This is what happened & this might
 be what we let happen again… 

When Williams penned these words, did he envisage white insurrectionists carrying the Confederate Flag while they stormed Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021? They fashioned their strings to the past into a Jim Crow-styled noose to hang our Vice President who, they believed, had sold out their cause to hold onto political power.

 No island is an island; no body just a
 body, & so forth. When the South
 rises again, carry your father with the
 rebel flag tattoo to the window to
 watch the burning. Let the world
 laugh at itself. Break from tradition.
 To men who want & want & want,
 admit you’ve tried so hard not to be
 one of them.

Emboldened and incited by their leader in the White House, white supremacists and white nationalists among us have risen to prominence. To men who want & want & want there is no end to the burning. Fire consumes lives and livelihoods—black, brown, and white alike. No island is an island; no body just a / body, & so forth.

Only we can set ourselves free from the coffins, filled with hate and fear, that imprison our bodies and souls. Are we up to the task?

To read the complete featured poem, “No Island Is an Island, & So Forth,” and learn more about the work of the poet John Sibley Williams, go to my Poetry Corner January 2021.