“Book Review: Skin Memory”
Reviewed by Liam Anthony
An arresting poetry collection rich in both language and meaning, taking the reader through the visceral landscape of an outstanding poetic voice.
Skin Memory by John Sibley Williams is a poetry collection that places the reader in a labyrinth of imagery, ruminating on identity, memory, childhood, relationships, and the physical and psychological resonance of our surroundings. A book for all style of poetry lover, it oscillates between free verse to prose poems, offering showstopping moments in the poet’s command of language.
There is an undeniable feeling of continuity in these poems; the metaphysical references to landscape and weather work hand in hand with meditations on change and identity, like in “Snake. Tree. Rope. Wall,” where Sibley Williams carefully weaves a hypnotic rhythm: “For example, the sky in my hand today feels / silk-spined and smooth and spirited by the wind.” In “Spectral,” the same rhythm lays down the scaffolding of these ideas with, “…as a / breeze does odd things to the trees: / as if what chains them to us is more than air.”
The poem “Killing Lesson” nods to the notion of forgiveness as a consequence of our darker actions. It plays with the innocuous moments in childhood when we destroy physical things and yet somehow still presents them with more sinister undertones. “Let’s forget that time / we torched a haze of ants. / Let’s call that prologue. Let’s call it draft.”
“Dear Nowhere” is a poetic love letter to America, written in sections separated by states. From the repetition of “Boy[’s]” profile in the Cheyenne, Wyoming section to the slower tug of the section about Ames, Iowa in which the poet references the slaughtering of a bull, this poem offers a focus of what reminds the reader of how alive they are.
One of the highlights for me is the poem “Sanctum.” The poet illustrates a discernible ability of making the object of the poem omnipresent, almost like a character speaking directly to the reader. In this poem, the reader pays close attention to history and what goes unwritten and unsaid. “I’m looking for the world the world doesn’t like to talk about above a whisper.” Unpacking myriad ideas about not only what we read and learn about in history, but how writing provides this inner sanctum, this refuge to create the world we desire.
Skin Memory certainly presents John Sibley Williams as a type of poetic tour de force with his lyrical dexterity. The collection is strong, playful, and curated with continuity. These poems are to be discussed, cherished, protected, read aloud and performed, but most of all, to be enjoyed.
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
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