Skin Memory’ by John Sibley Williams -Reviewed

Reviewed ByEmma Lee

Emma Lee is The Blue Nib’s Reviews Editor. Her publications include “Ghosts in the Desert” (IDP, UK, 2015). “The Significance of a Dress” is forthcoming from Arachne. She co-edited “Over Land, Over Sea,” (Five Leaves, UK, 2015), reviews for magazines and blogs at

Skin Memory

‘Skin Memory’ John Sibley Williams

University of Nebraska Press

ISBN 9781935218500 96pp $15.95)

‘Skin Memory’ was the winner of the Backwaters Prize and is a collection of free verse and prose poems exploring a natural landscape, imperfect human relationships with it and the imprints left behind. Some border on ecopoetry, e.g. in ‘Helka (Revised)’ (the poem is left and right justified on the page so it looks like a solid block with the exception of the last line),

‘                                                 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.

The earth will outlive human folly and endeavours and, despite this, man still tries to make his mark to leave something for history to record. Appropriately, the poem feels dense and rhythmically heavy. 

‘Dear Nowhere’ is a short sequence set in different locations. In {Armes, Iowa}

‘                                      My grandfather
once showed me a way to castrate a bull that tradition says
causes the least suffering. I am embarrassed at how easy
flesh separates from flesh, how delicious the living
world, how I show my gratitude.’

and is followed by {Elsewhere in North Texas}

‘                                                Be faithful
first to the heavens, then to yourself.
Third must be to the world. I’m sure third is the world,
the armadillo balling up when we poke it with an oak branch.’

The two suggest an ambivalent relationship with nature: a wonder and gratitude for living things, including humans, yet a desire to prod at and control the earth, to make it notice and to treat it cruelly.

Meanwhile in {Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming}

‘Bison thrum. The darkness breathes.
And spear tips flicker in the firelight.
There’s bull elk implied. Or aspen sharpened by shadow.
Flame with a circle of stones to temper it.

                         The disembodied
words of Whitman and cormorant returning; on the wind,
my mother before I knew her, or just after. Vaguely,
in the distance, water’s fall and water’s crash,
the sound of everything I’ve failed 
                                           to keep safe. And home.’

Memories around a campfire and a sense of connection and uncertainty: readers never find out if the shadows were elk or trees. There’s gloominess in the sense of failure which could be a reflection of the dark. Yet the familiar landscape is also home. The rhythm is unhurried and measured giving a sense of resigned hope.

Williams is not just concerned with the natural world. ‘Death Is a Work in Progress’ considers a mother fading through dementia, 

‘My mother says fox while gesturing toward an old red wagon
abandoned in our yard for decades. A word so cavernous
her entire body vanishes into it. Body of misfiring electrons.
Scattered images, contexts. Body that is mainly just body now.
No other animal knowns how to be this incomplete. I think: if
you were a fox, coyotes would have eaten you by now. I say:
yes, I’ll climb into that fox and let you pull me through the high
grass one more time.’

There are notes of hope too, as children undergo a safety drill in ‘[this is only a test]’,

‘Children shrink under school desks and on the top floor of a swaying building I’m asked if I believe in god. There’s too much desperation squeezed beneath doorframes, too many windows opening and minds set on flight. 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 sack of rice, feeding the grass. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure, everything within us says something beautiful.’

The poem feels like a stream of consciousness, an outpouring of free association. Yet each phrase is interlinked and leads into the next. It’s also a reminder that despite our impermanence, we can leave something positive or beautiful behind.

In ‘Skin Memory’ Williams explores the human desire to leave at least an imprint behind and a conflicted relationship with nature, an earth that will continue despite human attempts to control and tame it. The language is pared back and considered. The poems’ measured rhythm is compelling. They don’t shy away from bleakness and feel as if they’ve been seeded, quietly left to grow in the dark before blooming into becoming.