As NDQ issue 87.3/4 starts to come together, it seemed like a good idea to preview some of John Sibley Williams’ poetry. The Quarterly’s been fortunate enough to publish some of his poetry before. “Canaveral,””Land Management,” and “Born For” appeared in NDQ 87.1/2 (you can download the entire issue here for free). In our next issue, due out in the fall, we’ll publish “Portrait of a Portrait on Fire.”
I was recently drawn back to these poems because of Williams’ interest in fire, but as I re-read the poems, I realized that fire, earth, and sky are key elements in Williams’ imaginary. This return to primal elements seems significant these days, but there’s probably never been a time when such a return is not needed.
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Portrait of a Portrait on Fire
with my eyes closed this long
i almost forget how his face
blistered & bruised from a canvas
we’d unhung from the living
room wall & dragged across
a wilded lawn to let burn
by itself beneath the same heavy
sky he in turn praised & blamed
& the cherry trees gnarled & knuckled
overhead casting shadows too long
to escape though in our trying
to love just this one violent gesture
the kind of salve immolation implies
when the unlit face of night refuses
to hurt as it should as if absence
anchors us together a family briefly
holding & being held by an ecstatic
prayer-like silence pierced by spark
& ash our hands linked for this one
night not at all like a barbed metal fence
Some things are damned to flare up before breaching
the surface of space, umbilical smoke as it continues
the trajectory, like a giant white Kanji character
brushed onto the air, like a parasite projected
from its microscopic plate against the heavens,
one after another mother covering her child
wet & widening eyes. Tendrils of doubt, notes
jotted into the margins of how the world really works.
When you stop making lists of why, the reasons distill,
refine, & are pure. That we will do it all again, repetition
as worship, as eventually adding up to something; above
this one is another sky shot full of holes.
John Sibley Williams is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize), and Summon (JuxtaProse Chapbook Prize). A twenty three-time Pushcart nominee and winner of various awards, John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review, teaches for Literary Arts, and is a poetry agent.