Hell, John Sibley Williams

 Lost Falls, Bigg’s Junction, Canyon de Chelley, Gary Buhler



It’s not so bad
damnation and shadow

The cries are honest
Tears dry as they fall
Kings rest their heads in my lap and become
what they could never in life betray

Someone who looks like my father
is mumbling about birthrights
and how he never expected his son
would also damage the sky

I sleep well to his voice

An anonymous god is beside me in the bathroom shaving his beard
and the promised winter never comes

Leaves in their sharp edges still swirl
through the flames and from our hands
which fall open into branches
birdless in acceptance

No bending

We are in between timetables
We talk to the crows and listen
I haven’t seen a newspaper anywhere
and no one speaks of tomorrow
as a distant planet


The company I keep here
as exquisite as a treeful of children

so many unapologetic songs
of violence and frailty
each ripe with I
and its various disconnects

so many narratives
as a listener
I’m in heaven

With never a silence between stories
I plant my tongue in the dirt for later
and let it blossom and stretch toward the sun
between my hands

We all hold our suns close
as the only light remaining inside

They flare through the worlds we left behind
in the subtlest infernos

Somewhere else someone is burning in us

Or so we hope


Those viciously inane sketches of dragons and bears
of half-devoured humans screaming from their mouths
and from the open pits of unfinished buildings

the charity of destruction

all these monikers of a childhood
devoid of tire swings and endless summer
that I left in the margins of experience and schoolbooks
have become the dissertation I must defend
to justify my presence here

I am not worthy of them

They belong to the monster that never metastasized
not to the one who fell to his knees
and wept in the face of beautiful things
who asked the naked winter trees for forgiveness
who outlined his own body in erasable ink


Nobody dreams in woodcuts anymore
That’s the whole problem
Even from within the frame
of this imagined elsewhere
I smell onion and garlic
spitting from mother’s frying pan
then I begin to believe in them
then I taste

There are no hiding places in memory

I’ve read all this before

Every other page held an image
of torment punishment
lines etched around open mouths
and tongues like morning itself
tasting the wrath of hard earth

I skimmed the text

I won’t apologize for it

There is still more than enough
to sustain tomorrow
in a single ancient portrait of fiction
than the entire history of prophecy
that my life calls into question


Do you hear the harps beneath my skin?

Our demons are only mice in the rafters

The structure is sound

I spent your lifetime worrying
these things will change

It’s not so bad
dreamt retribution

My mother steps from her shadow
and flogs what was taken from her
My skin is raw and has worth

Someone who looks like me
is singing with my father
who has shrunk into a single note
and fits in my mouth
and sounds like the mice beneath my skin
and the harp in the rafters

There is no structure
just trees


feel free to rip open my mouth
crack my jaw and pull from somewhere I’ve forgotten
all my trees and the clouds they rake and the friends that live in them

My voice
was led through the world
up and down long staircases and around the backs of buildings
There is little I can say even now I have not copied from other existences

But in a way
I am freely unauthentic
relating my life in arbitrary songs
that don’t actually relate a single moment

I am all wings

What I remember
remains the air’s property
Those I love keep me from falling through the earth
or ascending into the sun

There are too many words

I sleep well in them

I have both wasted my life
and not a moment of it

John Sibley Williams


Review by Pamela O’Shaughnessy

Hell “isn’t so bad”. We begin in a contrarian world, or with a poet who is determined to examine the pain separately from its effects. “The cries are honest”. Hell is at least not hypocritical. One can, maybe, live in Hell for a lifetime and manage it like severe rhinitis. It’s not entirely grand, incommensurable. It has its mundane details.

Hell is memories of the original family. The narrator’s father “never expected his son/ would also damage the sky.” The narrator’s hands now “fall open into branches/birdless in acceptance.” One gets along. One learns to ask for nothing: “No bending/supplication/want”.

The narrator has found beauty and a way of living here in Hell. “The company I keep here/as exquisite as a treeful of children.” He has become a writer who attends to the narratives of others. So many stories come his way that he can only “plant his tongue…for later”. He hopes that someone, maybe a transcendent someone, is burning in him.

Hell is the need to comes to terms with a childhood “devoid of tire swings and endless summer.” Even in his imagined “elsewhere” the narrator remembers the “mother’s frying pan”. These memories of childhood are examined in the context of an old book he is reading, with illustrations of another’s Hell, Hieronymus Bosch’s I think, with that great artist’s iconic paintings of the torments. But even these visions leave the narrator hoping for a better tomorrow.

The mother “steps forth from her shadow/and flogs what was taken from her/My skin is raw and has worth”. The mother is still alive in the narrator, and visits with her pain, but the narrator with all his wounds still stands. The father “has shrunk into a single note”. The past is a formless torment, detail, “just trees”.

All must be incorporated; the human lineage is ancient, both Hell and beauty. “There is little I can say even now I have not copied from other existences”. There is hope in love. Life is a paradox of loss of meaning and meaning: “I have both wasted my life/and not a moment of it.”

John Sibley Williams is a Northwestern poet with a presence on the Net, many publications, an M.A., and a future as a “professional” poet. This poem, as I see it, is as important stylistically as in its meaning to the poet. I have the impression that in spite of appearances it is more about his future than his past. It is written in a sophisticated, academically-influenced style, but is not overwhelmed by its sophistication as there is still plenty of raw emotion, as in the return from the abstract “elsewhere” to the palpable in the middle of the poem: “I smell onion and garlic/spitting from mother’s frying pan…then I taste.” These details ground the poem, with its otherwise apocalyptic scope.

The poem contains many brief insights that feel like epigrams: “Our demons are only mice in the rafters”. These are sharp and satisfying, and it is clear that they are meant to be building blocks in a work that is meant to be taken as a whole, as coming to terms with childhood and living the “Hell” that has been created from it, but a Hell that is currently manageable, from which the poet does not show an urgency to escape. He only seeks to accept it and find what is useful in it.

There is an ambitiousness here. I hear echoes of Blake and Milton in the way the transcendent is brought in as familiar.

With its melding of metaphor, emotion, and a dynamic pointing strongly forward, I read a youthful person seeking a difficult balance. What I wish for Mr. Williams is to retain the raw material, focus the abstraction into ever more powerful images, and continue his jump into the unknown. The demons of the past, as he says, have their uses. They may be drawn into the work and impel it forward. This poem seems to me to present the poet at this crossroads where one road looks back and the other forward. I would give a mighty shake and move forward rapidly and purposefully.

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