John Sibley Williams

Dear Jonah

previously published in Ruminate Magazine

If you can imagine each rib a bow sawing some music from the hollow gut of a violin, then surely the dead whale here rotting away in the sand can be called rousing. Harmonic.  In a way, beautiful. Let’s say the boys fighting with our dogs for viscera to smear all over the fresh white shirts of girls they love are our saviors. Grace-lights. Hand-me-down Army boots filling with blood, their names divided by hearts tattooed into trees. Image the knifework it takes to rend bone from bone. I find it difficult to imagine what we’d do to each other during times of peace. An arena fills with refugees a few miles inland. Power lines sag from the heft of homebound calls. Without shrapnel, your father’s chest would simply be another unplayed instrument. Let’s say we are playing our hearts out. Innocent again, with that wide-open belly of a whale calling us, finally   a death you can almost call song.  

I Sometimes Forget This Isn't about Us

Then last night the neighbors’ barn burned down around two boys flush with the exhausted calm following a forbidden act of love. The language of the town hasn’t quite caught up with the dark-skinned girl left half-dead in the watershed, how it risks the football team’s winning streak. Split piñata, the skull of the old man whose  register  never  held more than

a few hundred dollars. The yes, we can be better than this chanted from pews; the some kinds of people have it coming added over steepled hands each night before bed. The evening news says something about a trailer crammed with children overturning on a desolate tract of earth bordered by this & that country. Midnight, or just after, our bedsheets tucked high over our eyes, in no particular order the dead return to us, palms open, as if in apology, or self-defense.

Places We Visit Once, & Never Again

previously published in The Adroit Journal


Not the whole house, just the bed-room where a dead boy still has not quite died. Humming from posters, trophies, within the seashells lining a window that has never overlooked an ocean. Not the entire river either, just its shore, that drowning half of the tide. It’s not that we don’t miss the field, where the farmhands pray for rain to stop, then pray pray pray for it to rain again. But let’s skip the storm part next time. The thirst, its prayers. After my father dragged me to Gettysburg when I was twelve & told me to look, really look I knew we’d never return. Not from that. Next time let’s dig a hole the size of a child & set a small fire inside & move two counties away & see if it is true what they say about wounds. Instead of just his room, let’s leave the whole house to echo by itself. 

Us & Them

Not that the alloy filament sparking iron wires needs us to call this light. Even in our absence, shadows flee, & when the switch lowers, return to us undiminished. Not that the dead won’t still be here in the morning if we dress their wounds & declare the world healed. It’s not that anything really heals. Not that torture works or fails.  Even if they drown upside down in small bucket of water in a white room lit by a single swaying bulb, our questions keep coming.

Skin Memory

previously published in Salt Hill 

“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. 

John Sibley Williams is the editor of two Northwest poetry anthologies and the author of nine collections, including Disinheritance and Controlled Hallucinations. An eleven-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Philip Booth Award, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors' Prize, Confrontation Poetry Prize, and Vallum Award for Poetry. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: The Yale Review, Midwest Quarterly, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, Poet Lore, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, Columbia Poetry Review, Mid-American Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, and various anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon.