Review of John Sibley Williams’ “Skin Memory”: As If History Cannot Burn Us


Review of John Sibley Williams’

“Skin Memory”:

As If History Cannot Burn Us


by Noreen Ocampo


In his fourth poetry collection, Skin Memory, (The Backwaters Press, 2019),  John Sibley Williams opens up the world. With an astute hand, he creates Skin Memory’s geography atop a complicated history of both profound love and loss—both genuine connection and cruelty, violence, war. Due to release on November 1st, Skin Memory is a collection about life, and its winning of the 2018 Backwaters Prize in Poetry, selected by Kwame Dawes, is undoubtedly deserved. Throughout the book, Williams explores the complexity of human history and how humanity has wounded itself, all the while searching for rebirth and renewal. 

He opens the collection with the poem “Skin Memory”, which begins:

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?

From the moment Williams inquires this first question, the deeply introspective nature of this collection is clear and unyielding. Again and again, Williams urges himself and his readers to ponder the scars, conflicts, and questions that haunt the landscape through which he leads us. 

In “Symptoms of Shelter”, Williams reflects on the world’s tendency toward disarray and writes, “There are only so many perfect / moments allowed us; why / must they all end with the sky constricting, bleeding, the trees emptying of birds.” In “On Being Told: You Must Learn to Love the Violence”, he leads the questions inward and asks, “Why can’t I mainly be / a body sturdied by love?” And in “Dear Nowhere”, Williams directs his exploration even deeper yet as he ruminates: “Only if they exhume every inch of bone that fastens my great-great-great-grandfather to my femur / will I get to ask / how much of the field is really ours.”

As one may expect, the answers to these questions are just as complex and complicated. Nonetheless, not once does Williams’ poetry back away from the truth, regardless of how difficult it may be to shoulder. “Hekla (Revised)” is absolutely forthright and stunning; Williams writes, “In time, lava hardens into /  landscape, and we walk over old fires / as if history cannot burn us.” For me, these lines are full of certain power and perfectly encapsulate the nature of the scars humanity has etched into itself. Although scars may appear to have healed, this does not invalidate the existence of the wound.  

The ending lines of “Hekla (Revised)” are just as brilliant, leaving readers feeling jarred and perhaps even seen by the poet himself. Either way, the poem maintains the same indisputable truth and power: 

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.

In addition to shining light into the wounds of humanity, Williams also writes deeply about the human experience. I personally found Williams’ poems centering on the theme of youth, such as “Killing Lesson” and “Rules of Common Landscape”, particularly moving, as Williams’ plainspoken yet compelling voice emphasizes the vulnerability of youth and innocence as people grow to realize their own power. 

I also especially enjoyed how Williams examines the theme of fatherhood. This exploration feels so complete—we learn about Williams’ “great-great-great-grandfather” and the complex inheritance he leaves behind and meet Williams’ own father, who “was a mountain. And still has not proved himself / otherwise.” 

Together, Williams’ poems create a full picture. In “Father as a Papercut”, he writes: 

How I want to remember you: bent

metal that could be used to mark my

Inner thigh or the pages of a favorite

Book. As the profound resonance of

A church bell, rusting soundless.

And as a father himself, Williams continues his poetic exploration of fatherhood in “Absence Makes the Heart”, and the picture grows more:

My son has not yet found a reason to

love or hate the silence following

us around the house. All he knows:

something palpable is missing, not yet

profound, not yet painting night-mares

over his sleep, just a steady lack of arms

where arms should be.

Despite its namesake, this collection is one that seeps far beneath your skin and memory—and stays there. Williams’ voice is accessible but reveals all; it makes a home in your bones and pays rent by urging you to look inside yourself wholly and honestly and look into the world just as intensely. Despite the maelstrom of history, conflict, violence, loss, and creation that we may discover during this process, Williams concludes Skin Memory with a call to action in hopes of igniting the regeneration he seeks. In the last poem of the collection, “[this is only a test]”, he writes:

Beneath us the earth moves in predictable ways. A weeklong sandstorm in Nigeria. A

young girl gathering flies at a checkpoint somewhere, still cradling a visa and a sack of

rice, feeding the grass. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure, everything within us says something



By John Sibley Williams

96 pp. Backwaters Press. $15.95.

Preorder here.

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Noreen Ocampo is an undergraduate at Emory University, where she is double-majoring in English and Film Studies. Previously a music fellow in the 2019 COUNTERCLOCK Arts Collective and an alum of Georgia’s Governor's Honors Program and the Glass Kite Anthology Summer Writing Studio, Noreen likes to write poems, stories, and songs. Someday, she hopes to write for the screen. Perhaps in an alternate universe, she is a successful Renaissance woman, but for now, she can only do her best.

Sarah Feng