by PROSPER ALBRIGHT
John Sibley Williams, As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Books, 2019), pp. 86
Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher who thought that the world begins and ends in fire, also thought that “war fathers all and of all war is king,” and that “we are born of strife and suffering.” Destruction burns at the center of all creation and its endless reversals, where the vacuum that annihilation leaves behind is instantly filled as plentitude floods back. Sometimes, Heraclitus’s martial metaphors make it difficult to identify the metaphysician underneath his war-paint. Common to all, there is no “indecency” to war. In fact, the philosopher chastises poets who call for peace in the face of war, for “being is the opposite of being,” and only in war is there honor both by men and gods. War is merely the vibrant, natural, human expression of an essential, universal inferno. Heraclitus’s metaphysics commit him to visions both of everlasting fire and everlasting bloodshed.
In As One Fire Consumes Another, John Sibley Williams works under the trance of similar visions, though his aim, unlike Heraclitus, is to condemn the universality of violence. In a striking meditation on American brutality, in both its domestic and international incarnations at borders, in proxy wars, or in the raw aftermath of lynch-law, the poet bears witness to an unending series of fires—the destruction that attends historical cycles of oppression, vigilantism, and white supremacy that get encoded into daily language, dysfunctional family relationships, national myth, and popular symbols. Williams is different from Heraclitus, in that the conflagrations he sees exhaustlessly burning in cities like Charlottesville, Virginia or in mass graves at the U.S.-Mexico border are caused not by the gods but humans and their history. But he shares with the pre-Socratic philosopher a similar sense of fatedness, which translates in As One Fire as frustration, fear, anger, self-doubt, and haunted helplessness. By the end of Williams’ book, I remind myself that the best a poet can do is found jotted at the bottom of a handwritten poem by Emily Dickinson, who often noted variants to some of the words in her lines. Following the body text of “My Life has Stood—A Loaded Gun,” Dickinson lists out four variants: “+the +low +harm +art.” Read together as a mini-manifesto, the poet, implicated as he is in the seethe of American violence, can at best moderate the harm he does; at best he can practice a low-harm art. Williams’ vision is burdened, agonized, and ironic in the ancient sense of the word, as it might be used to refer to figures like Oedipus, who recognizes at last, too late, that his will was never his own, that he has been excluded from the situations that define his life, and that he is doomed to wander always the periphery of his own actions.
Beset by such frustrations, Williams tries to evade historical cycles by fighting fire with fire. Feeling deeply the pervasiveness of structural racism and other kinds of historically sanctioned violence, Williams experiments with the possibilities of apocalypse, or revelation that culminates in oblivion. In “Everything Must Go,” a house—suggestive of the pernicious resilience of tradition and atavistic outlooks—is portrayed as a haunted, empty space, its mossed gables burdened but undestroyed by “a full century” bearing down on it. Against this backdrop, the poem’s speaker feels similar pressures, self-conscious of the weight or burden of being “out-of-synch” with the “dark drift of history.” In order to keep this dark history from repeating itself—which is to say, from haunting itself—the speaker proposes that “we must sell off what we fear owning.” And yet, the radical dispossession that the speaker so badly desires is difficult to tell apart from denial or evasions of culpability. Specifically, he fears owning up to the history of his family’s involvement in domestic terrorism and white supremacy, and Williams’ performs the bad-faith ambivalence of “selling off” as a response to the fear of “incomplete erasure,” where the nooses of lynching ropes can’t quite be unknotted or unseen, ignored or disowned:
“These are not hanging ropes, just a
few knotted cords heavying a tree.
Mine are not better bones. The glass
In the bathroom not a mirror, exactly.
Our silence not atonement, my dead
parents either. For a good price, this
house & everything in it possibly
still on fire.”
The poem turns on the impossibility of atonement, erasure, or self-dispossession. As Williams puts it elsewhere, “when I look at where we come from, it’s still not nowhere, or forgiven.” The ancestral home burns with an eternal fire. The dilemma in “Everything Must Go” is that selling off doesn’t absolve and fire doesn’t destroy—and yet Williams still attempts to enact a cleansing by fire just a few pages later. In “Down by the Old Lynching Tree, A Flickering Light,” instead of selling off “hanging ropes as “a few knotted cords heavying a tree,” Williams’ draws parallels between a boy igniting a homemade bomb and the destruction of the “old Lynching tree,” ropes and all:
“& a different boy, who
often dreams of living into his teens,
is mapping his road to the sky in
metal shards held together by
powder & fuse. A fuse he cannot
light without help. A fuse he cannot
light without fire. A fire that con-
sumes the blindness. From the tired
skin of night a rope snaps free from
a burning tree.”
Etymologically, “apocalypse” means “revelation.” Just so, the fire in Williams’s poem reveals at the same time as it destroys; it “con- / sumes the blindness.” But in the unblinding light of the burdened, burning ambivalence of “Everything Must Go,” I can’t help doubting the final image in “Old Lynching Tree,” where the lynching rope that hangs from the tree of history suddenly “snaps free.” There is little in Williams’s book to give me confidence in this exhausted optimism implied by this image. These are poems that insist on owning up to structural implication and guiltiness, on the tenacity of history, the impossibility of forgetting or achieving just reparation, and thus the impossibility of ending the cycles of conflagration. On the one hand, Williams decries the memorialization of archaic (confederate?) battlefields that preserve ties to a haunted past: “Instead / of touching forehead to ground as if in supplication/ecstasy/grief, set fire / to the old battlefield & let the winds / unsever your strings to the past.” But on the other hand, and in the same poem, Williams will insist that:
“This is what happened & this might
be what happens again. When
writing your obituary, make sure to
leave some space for grandfather’s
In the end, it doesn’t matter if the battlefield is burned, or the confederate statues toppled. For as long as there are “skies still believed in,” there are “grounds to kill.” Violence between bodies is the rule; it is an exception worth noting when “Somewhere, a body moves across / another without harm.” “We need new songs,” Williams declares. But his are not those songs, preyed upon as they are, not just by the past, but more ferociously by their own inability to sever ties with that past. Indeed, the strangeness of the word “unsever” in the poet’s call for dissociation from the illusions of bygone glory may be applied to Williams’s book as a whole. These are poems that burn with the desire for silence and oblivion, yet damn that same desire as a careless quietism. The result is an everywhere inferno, with no slow ascent into purgatory, much less the difficult redemptions and lessons of paradise.
Yet there are curious moments of reconciliation throughout the book, glimpses of compromise and ceasefire. “July the 4th” relates a night watching fireworks, the audience gathered in a “buzzcut field” “hiding inside ourselves as children / unsure how a country works.” In the midst of splendor, caught up in the “distraction of awe,” “even the statues are forgetting their / lost battles”—a moment of reprieve from history in which the speaker’s daughter looks up into the spectacle of intermingled color and observes “so much blue up there … / & reds, but together.” It is almost as if, as they burn, red state and blue state are brought together. It is an image of ambivalent concession echoed elsewhere, though more troublingly, as in “Sundogs,” which bears a dedication to Charlottesville, Virginia. In the poem, “two mock suns lighting up the low / horizon” compete for “grace- / giving, as if at war with each other.” Reading this, it is hard not to think of the clash between neo-fascists and counter-protestors at the deadly “Unite the Right Rally” on August 12, 2017. Williams continues:
“The borders of their brief bodies
converging in one great arc flanking
then eclipsing the real. An imagined
architecture of virtue. A pure white
history. Torchlight flickers & feasts,
flickers & feasts, flickers & feasts.
Whatever we think they stand for,
the old gods are toppling.”
The two-sidedness of this poem is difficult to map onto the events of 8/12. Who is represented by the two suns? The neo-fascists and the counter-protestors? Or two competing far-right groups? At stake in either case is “a pure white history,” an “imagined architecture of virtue,” destroyed when the “old gods topple”—a possible reference, given the dedication, to the Robert E. Lee statue in Market Street Park in Charlottesville, or to Silent Sam confederate statue on the campus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, pulled down by protestors in 2018. This poem admits the possibility of two-sidedness on the issue of confederate memorialization: “Whatever we think they stand for, / the old gods are toppling.” Williams remains agnostic about the meaning of the statues, implicitly granting viability to a conservative interpretation of Civil War history. Williams merely observes that the times are changing, and reserves judgment.
These reservations appear elsewhere in As One Fire Consumes Another. Williams, for example, repeatedly ventriloquizes white America, reifying an “us” and a “them”—the same logic that lead to the election of Donald Trump. In “I Sometimes Forget This Isn’t About Us,” the poem’s speaker records a series of violent crimes perpetrated against racial and sexual minorities, observing, for instance, that “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.” The “us” in the poem is made up of people who chant “yes, we can do better than this,” but later add “over steepled hands,” “some kinds of people have it coming.” The poem is a portrait of a hostile, evangelical, white America. But it dispassionately withholds explicit condemnation. In the end, the speaker even implicates himself in the protectionist fold of the “us” that the poem both is and is not “about”:
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.”
The poem is “about” refocusing attention on the dead minorities instead of the murderous majority. But it is difficult to accomplish this without rehearsing the death of the other, while also making a spectacle out of white guiltiness. On the one hand, I admire Williams clear-eyed, non-judgmental commitment to lingering in grey-areas, granting humanity to everyone—the murdered as well as the murders. But it is difficult, on the other hand, to always distinguish between complexity and apologism. In an age of profound political divisiveness, it is unexpected, if not also unsettling, to read poems that make mass shooters into minotaurs, or respond with tortured tenderness to neo-confederate family members: “When the South / rises again, carry your father to the window to / watch the burning. Let the world / laugh at itself. To men who want & want & want, / admit you’ve tried so hard not to be / one of them.”
In all, As One Fire Consumes Another is a challenging book, as contradictory and traumatized and bewildered as the country it attempts to represent. It is a fever dream that never breaks, a self-interrogation that turns and turns and writhes against itself in an inferno of its own making, as is the case for all of us. By the last page, in a poem called “Reparations,” not even poetry is left undamned, as Williams confesses “I have failed you again; and this is for / that failing. For the wailing we think / should shake the earth, that nothing changes. I was wrong; this has / always been for the dead. And I have / risked so little to linger here.” Whether the old gods fall or a poem is written in love or protest, the effect is the same. A world on fire burns unquenched.