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Skin Memory

Skin Memory

by John Sibley Williams
Skin Memory

Skin Memory

by John Sibley Williams


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A stark, visceral collection of free verse and prose poetry, Skin Memory scours a wild landscape haunted by personal tragedy and the cruel consequences of human acts in search of tenderness and regeneration. In this book of daring and introspection, John Sibley Williams considers 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.

In these poems absence can be held, the body’s dust is just dust, and though childhood is but a poorly edited memory and even our well-intentioned gestures tend toward ruin, Williams nonetheless says, “I’m pretty sure, everything within us says something beautiful.”

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781935218500
Publisher: The Backwaters Press
Publication date: 11/01/2019
Series: The Backwaters Prize in Poetry
Pages: 96
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

John Sibley Williams serves as editor of the Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. He is the author of four poetry collections, including As One Fire Consumes Another, which won the Orison Poetry Prize; Disinheritance; and Controlled Hallucinations. He lives in Portland, Oregon. 

Read an Excerpt


Skin Memory

I have begun to understand that the Inupiaq language itself is a form of resilience, that poems are a form of resilience.

—Joan Naviyuk Kane

Because you are what song breaks open your throat and because the same century burns a different mark into me. For now I can just listen. To how choreographed our forgetting. To the dark little narratives of this is mine / yours, in that order. Can you sing this country its name?

Because skin has a memory all its own and because memory is a language that's survived its skin. For now I just walk the waist-high replanted pines of unassimilation, carrying my words like anchors through an open field of oars.

Snake. Tree. Rope. Wall.

When it has been night this long we learn to see with our hands.

I know groping for names takes the form of prayer for some people while others engineer new dreams from the blindness.

Not everything begins all at once with elephant. Not everything ends once the details decide on a context.

* * *

A thousand crows beat against night.
As we're left with only a few fallen feathers truth is what I make of it.

For example, the sky in my hand today feels silk-spined and smooth and spirited by the wind.
The wind feels like wherever it's come from.

Today my father is a slack line running dead across the lake.
Let's agree to call what we're touching his hand.
Let's say it's still warm.
Let's agree our hands are enough to judge.

Let's say the hollows in his skull are eyes and that all eyes can shine if you sweep the flies from them.

Let's say we are certain of this one thing

* * *

then let's never touch it again.


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 cuffs, fraying,
the full force of a father's fist:

to a physicist, causality. Or
—let's say they're wrong—

there are no preludes, matchsticks.
The flame has always been here.

Maybe it doesn't take winter to make a tree in winter or dewpoint to vague a morning field.

And of mothwings against glass?
A mother's tears? Those damned stupid horses

burning all night as if the earth demanded sacrifice? The earth is silent.

The hanging rope's for hanging.
The body's dust is dust.

Hekla (Revised)

The opening to hell is the mouth of a mountain in Iceland or anywhere, really, remote enough to border on the sacred. Unknowable light greens the night sky. In time, lava hardens into landscape, and we walk over old fires as if history cannot burn us. If Jules Verne had actually journeyed to the center of the glacier the world rests on—heavily, like a grandfather sunk into a worn armchair dreaming of half? healed wars—he would have known there is no center. No past tense. No word that means the same translated back to its native silence. Every few thousand years the holy betrays us: ash darkens firmament, fire surges from a dying culture's mouth. That nothing 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.

St. Helens [1980]

Sometimes deer stop returning to the river to drink. Just like that. Ash lacquers the surface for a few months and over the bodies it compresses into a kind of stone. Funereal, the sky returns to those biblical days our grandparents recounted over our tightened eyes, feigning sleep. When we dreamed it was always of this. Of them, angry gods. Of constant featureless night. And still. Perhaps it's true: I haven't lost much recently, at least compared to the deer that won't be here when the water cleanses itself blue again. I'd like to say we are a patient people, a stone people, that something good will come from waiting for the sun to reemerge to lengthen our shadows.

Then We Will Make Our Own Demons

This is what happens when no one has set the living room ablaze in decades.

When mother calls across an empty field and all her children come running from the shadows, safely, home

to an abundant plate; every time,
ripe apples and merciless wholeness.
Thighs unbruised even after clenching

the belly of a mare there was no need to break. When not a series of slaps but the earth gently folding up upon itself

is what hardens the mountains. When father was a mountain. And still has not proved himself otherwise. When lumps of sugar are enough

for kids to learn the names of trees. This is a sycamore. Sweet, bloodless sycamore.
Son, this is how you carry moonlight

into the house. When the bodies flapping away, half-mast, are all cotton and glory. Petrifying crows. Harvest.

When your name is less an arrow pulled from whatever you felt you had to fell; instead it is a thread dissolving

into a forgotten wound. When all wounds have hints of birds in them. Sometimes the whole bird. When the whole damn bird

fits in your eye, and you are nothing but love for a candle inching closer to the sofa. Mom,
here it is. Here is the moonlight.

It Was a Golden Age of Monsters

The sickle moon bobs like a child's paper boat between silhouettes of paper mountains. I am watching

steam swell off a herd of bison in a black-and-white book about the American West. Too young to read

much into what I'm reading. The world is all image,
unfinished rail track and Douglas fir, level saw cuts, rings

tracing back to the beginning. The dozen spears projecting from a felled paper beast are replaced the next chapter

by rifles and iron and the same falling. Tomorrow it will snow and my father will drive me down

to the hospital again. Snowflakes crazing about our headlights. Paper moon between

the mountains. I will be thinking about bison,
blood on the page, not the pillow. The road

that curls home always seems to erase itself.
And the steam coming off it, frail as breath.

Sons of No One

So far all the suicides have been men
  in my family. When I draw them

close, it helps to remember the lake
  beneath the desert the animals

cannot taste but know exists.
  It helps to draw them hungry

clusters of light loping across the night
  sky, such flames in their bellies. To connect

each with my finger and name
  this little universe after the gods

our god swallowed to give us a glimpse into creation.


Whatever it was returns to shadowy forest, & everything is mine, alone, again, for the night. But I can't keep my eyes from the near distance, out beyond my grasp, where the world eases calmly to nowhere. Broken by a brief act of witness. Like a mother glued to a monitor, as the beats still: as she rubs her emptying belly: as a breeze does odd things to the trees: as if what chains them to us is more than air.

* * *

Each body is an outpost, populating, on its way to becoming a city. How the lights multiply, the surrounding darknesses swell: how the moment speaks in future tense: if I'm being honest, how we miss what we never quite had, holding the light up to it? self, saying this is what we needed you to be.

* * *

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.

Symptoms of Shelter

If I could reconcile the fullness of the moon, of the black oak tonight's moon illuminates,

with the bodies I've seen in photographs hanging from an oak at night in just this light.

There are only so many perfect moments allowed us; why must they all end with the sky

constricting, bleeding, the trees emptying of birds. Buckshot in the distance. Dog bark and

goodnight. Everywhere the dead and nothing to be done. This familiar field

now going strange.

How lucky I have been to love, and love blindly

Everything Must Belong Somewhere

Just past the factory where old men silently sandpaper legs for machines to assemble into tables, there isn't so much a roaring sea as a graveyard of off-cuts crackling and fast burning into evening. The air is thick enough to hold and be held, to make something for us to believe in. What we make might be called love in another language. But we call it absence. We say almost. Awkward hands up blouses and stolen whiskey jars and all those notes bundled up in the belly of an unplayed guitar. How to sing them? To get out of the way and let things sing through us? I think I miss myself in them. I think my father misses something too. Everything begins with missing. This dance that seems all body. Our teenage limbs windmilling the smoke from the wood that wasn't good enough for home. We call it home

There Is Still

something thin to swing from madly over the glory-faded cottonwood. A different kind of rope & knot, sure, & a different purpose. But our limbs haven't changed much; all ascent & greed. The sky yielding just enough of itself to urge us higher. They say there's nothing left to worship; I'd agree if not for the dust kicked up every slow, steady swipe we take at erasure. What our grandfathers said their fathers did. The haunted house of our bodies, creaking open, almost forgiven. Lately, the dead calm of a summer by the lake where someone told me someone once hung a child for loving another child has lost its grace. What we say to the fire in our lungs doesn't change. Same tree. I'd assume we throw the same shadow long & dark over grass & stone. We all have reasons, Mark. I hope I am swinging to remember.

— for Mark Strand


No one's drowned in the boarded-up well out back in a century. When I pry up the nails to let in some sky, the voices the moss maintained rise like a cloud of bats from the mouth of a cave. Hungry to be heard, as any static thing, I say to the dead you are lucky to be so permanent, so practiced at loneliness, so close, so goddamn close to journey's end. Maybe they've had enough of this living forever. Maybe the mystery has never been the where or how, but why this need to be forgotten. There are many ways to scream so no one hears, and each sounds just like a child alone again in a night-heavy farmhouse, making monsters of his shadow and friends with his dead, running wild out into the dark with only a hammer and his silence; a door he can't remember opening slamming shut behind him.

New Farmers' Almanac

Spent crops. Burnt seed. What should have been thin strips of walkable earth organizing this field lit copper by evening into paths is now wide-open space, pathless. At least the world still smells like the world: dirt-rich, deliberate, as much oak as animal. Rust and old oil. Blood. Everything else is an orphanage. New. Empty. As if everything dies wilder than it began. In a kitchen watching men with my cheekbones drag machinery over scorched earth, someone who is not yet me, up on tiptoe, cranks the hands of a clock forward thinking there may be some music left inside tomorrow.

On Being Told: You Must Learn to Burn Like This

Cities should be seen at a distance at night at the halfway point between enter and escape. Look — how our manmade stars cluster together for warmth: archipelagos flickering in a sea of glass, fireflies burning into the distant ridgeline. I only ask to be as dangerous as a failing bridge. As a cigarette sparking refuse in a barrel, warming a dozen empty hands. I only ask to be this version of a man. But living takes its time making a fire of me. The city still looks like the sky a child holds. I don't ask to be that beautiful. I can't ask what you see in me when all the lights go out, from that middle distance of leaving and, maybe, please, returning.


Excerpted from "Skin Memory"
by .
Copyright © 2019 John Sibley Williams.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Skin Memory
Snake. Tree. Rope. Wall.
Hekla (Revised)
St. Helens [1980]
Then We Will Make Our Own Demons
It Was a Golden Age of Monsters
Sons of No One
Symptoms of Shelter 
Everything Must Belong Somewhere 
There is Still 
New Farmer’s Almanac 
On Being Told: You Must Learn to Burn Like This 
Advice Picked up Along the Way 
Killing Lesson 
For C. D. Wright 
Rules of Common Landscape 
On Being Told: You Must Learn to Pray 
Always Greener 
Dear Nowhere 
Tonight’s Synonyms for Sky 
Prelude to Again 
As Above, So Below 
Star Count 
As a Child, Drawing Purgatory 
Off Season 
Variations on a Theme 
Death is a Work in Progress 
Poison Oak 
The Animal 
Compared to Even the Smallest Star, the Moon is a Child
On Being Told: White is a Color without Hue 
Salt is for Curing 
Than the Dead 
Inventing Fire in Northern Michigan in December 
One Horse Town 
Absence Makes the Heart 
We Can Make a Home of It Still 
On Being Told: You Must Learn to Love the Violence 
Father as Papercut 
Says a Father to the Night from His Emptied Nest 
A Brief History of a Perfect Storm 
The Length of the Field 
Natural History 
Anything Can Be Made a Halo 
Before, and the Birds After 
[this is only a test] 

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