Miriam C. Jacobs
John Sibley Williams’s second full-length book of poems, disinheritance (Apprentice House, 2016), ponders death and the life that the dead can no longer inherit. For the most part, Williams appears to address a specific death, if an invented one — I strongly encourage a reading of these poems as imaginative rather than autobiographical — and arguably most devastating among possible deaths, that of a child.
Williams takes on grief from various perspectives in both mood and personae. We hear most from the child’s father but his mother and other relatives speak, too, as does the child himself, serially, in eight interspersed poems. Each one’s title begins, “A Dead Boy” and is followed by a verb clause: “… Speaks to His Parents,” “… Distinguishes the Proximal from the Distal,” “… Martyrs His Mother,” “… Learns Metaphor,” “… Fishes with His Dead Grandfather,” “… Fashions the Grand Canyon from His Body,” and “… Visits the Grotto.” There is one grammatical exception: “A Dead Boy During the Dry Season,” and with it is a change in voice. The speaker is not the dead child but a seemingly omniscient narrator who relates, with great compassion, each of several family members’ delayed release of tears:
There is only so much water …
to wetten a dying boy’s lips
and to wash him …
his mother … drained the home’s well …
danced the rain from each derelict cloud …
his father … collected their tears in a wooden pail.
The house emptied its gutters …
Another sequence of poems that works structurally to unite the volume and repeats a title, “Bone River,” is seemingly a single poem in four segments scattered throughout the text. Williams distinguishes one segment from another with roman numerals: “Bone River (i),” “Bone River (ii),” and so forth. Each segment focuses on burial, with the ubiquitous and static term bone yard becoming a liquid, a near deluge, first physical, then metaphoric. Included is the struggle somehow to bury our dead emotionally, “learning to brush … teeth with kindling, scrub the enamel down to fire” (Bone River (iv)). Here we find something like Mark Strand’s light-hearted contemplation of space, “wherever I am, I am what is missing” (Keeping Things Whole), translated by Williams as a scrutiny of loss and guilt:
… displacing air and
waiting for the vacancy to fill …
raw and enigmatic remorse.
What is it here I have done
and am waiting for? [Williams’s italics]
A third structuring element is division of the text into untitled chapters, each made up of nineteen poems, and each seeming to render stages of grief. Williams does not follow the prescribed eight or five stages but allows his speakers to communicate their own. These thematic divisions are not absolute; there is overlap. However, the first group primarily addresses the subject of despair, the hollowness and hopelessness of loss (“not even the sky/in all its burning can speak for ash”); the emptiness of Christian comfort (“a grandmotherly story of angels”); and irony in feeling responsible for the grief of others: “I am sorry I am sorry I am/so sorry for describing us as bundled and aflame.”
The second chapter enters repeatedly and imaginatively into other lives along with the father’s — the mother’s, the grandparents’, the neighbors’, and even the child’s at ages he will never grow into.
In the final section the speaker discusses pain in universals, the sufferings of other people in the world, of mythological characters/archetypes (the Fisher King), and of non-human entities: flowers weep; the planet cries; even a river bears grief, (as we see also in the poems of Li-Young Lee).
Williams’s disinheritance is strong work, pertinent in its discussion of ways to encounter death, as we must do. Many of these poems, I discovered, may be read forward or backward – putting the last line first. It is difficult to say whether such a reading is the author’s intent. Reversal, however, is a not uncommon method of dealing with final lines that don’t seem to land quite right. When you move a weak ending to an initial position, doing so can have the effect of taking away what may feel redundant or over-stated, and using it instead to show readers where they are.
Some of the best poems in the volume are: “This Place of Scraps” (“Winter is hardly enough to believe in tomorrow./Still I hang from the branches of a tree that might not be there”); “Alight” (“There is a stone in my pocket and another in my hand. This/I believe is what they call ‘the best of both worlds.’/But I am half wrong”); and “Paper Cranes:”
… we like to believe
we will be saved
by a rustle of paper
and our daughter who cries
when she sets them free to sink
in the bathtub, all around her.
Williams has published several chapbooks and an earlier full-length collection, Controlled Hallucinations (FutureCycle 2013).