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credit: The Backwaters Press

John Sibley Williams, Skin Memory (The Backwaters Press, 2019), 79. 

Recently, neuroscientists confirmed what poets already knew—haptic memory and touch sensations stick in our memory linger long after the encounter. While we too often divorce science from poetry in pedantic discourse, John Sibley Williams’ fourth poetry collection, Skin Memory brings them powerfully  together into conversation. It traces encounters: of nature and humans; of stark rural isolation and intimacy; of tragedy and history. The collection explores how haptic encounters become etched into memories that can be replayed. Winner of the Backwaters Prize in Poetry, Skin Memory persuasively examines personal tragedy to provoke readers to question the interactions between nature and human invention. It haunts readers with its seemingly simple observations and the ways the environment marks history, for as the lines of “Nocturne” record, “No one’s drowned in the boarded-up/ well out back in a century.” While the observation of the boarded-up well seems simple enough, its pairing with inevitable death, it asks us to consider why the well was boarded and what is boarded up with that well.  But the collection also probes the tender flashes— the ghost of a loved one’s face in a grandson and the bitter sweet double entendre of a swing’s motion, which  “feels too much like/ sex for me to think of childhood. I / cannot tell which of us is entering / & which is the door we are hoping / to close”  in “Swing.” Whether discussing family suicide or leaving childhood behind, the poems carefully linger on the objects (the swing, the well, a road) and environment enclosing these objects. 

Rather than explore the mode-du-jour—posthumanism—Williams turns away from it. Instead, he offers a refreshing counter to a posthumanist perspective by ruthlessly interrogating the anthropocene.  The road, the stars and the well resist human imposition, but they also only exist in human encounters as ambivalent and with agency. In this strange interaction, Williams underscores the networks between humanity and nature and its reminders of personal, generational history. In his poems, nature works as an erasure, a remembrance, and a guide for regeneration. In “It was a Golden Age of  Monsters,” the narrator observes, “The road // that curls home always seems to erase itself.” Even the road, a man made intrusion on nature, resists human attachment. It actively erases any sentimentality or human understanding of locale. But this resistant encounter seems mutual. The persona of “Star Count,” claims to try “so hard /to imagine buckshot as constellations.” Here, the persona connects stars with bullets, a human agent of violence, but both human nature seem to resist this connection. Williams’ collection asks us to consider the agency, collusion and resistance in the interactions of human and nature.  

credit: John Sibley Williams

As with memory, the collection loops back to reexamine the personal scars, the burning horses and the site of suicide (the well), as if replaying and re-examining the trauma will lend more understanding or a different perceived outcome to such events. Through the collection, Williams smoothly transitions from free verse to prose poems. Though the content loops back, his forms seem to remain static with no order, and as such, the forms in their variance and unpredictably seems to launch readers forward, traveling through time, while the content returns to past trauma. Unlike the threads that weave through the collection, allowing the reader to re-examine it from a different perspective, the forms shift from free verse to prose poem without the same cyclical pattern. It is almost as if the collection’s construction follows the end lines: “And in dreaming forget I have no idea /What I’m saying when I say I’ve got you.” We are left anticipating the collection’s forms to mesh with its networks of memories. Perhaps, the collection’s structure, like the road to home, defies legibility. It follows no distinguishable order and self-erasing as we travel further into the collection. It does not loop back to where it begins. 

Aside from the collection’s structure, the poems offer a powerful, vibrant exploration of memory, one that examines the interconnections and resistance of environmental, generational and personal history. In the midst of the present post-humanist drive, Skin Memory asks us to reconsider our relationship with nature and consider its markers. While the persona of “Swing,” claims, “We cannot conjure/ metaphors of our own, / we borrow, repurpose,” Skin Memory summons shared encounters and gives its readers revived metaphors as tools to break the numbness of tragedy at a distance.

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