A Review of As One Fire Consumes Another by John Sibley Williams
Review by Mel Ruth
I have a system. Whenever I approach a new book of poetry, I do certain things: I look for a dedication and/or epigraph, I analyze the organization—does it have a proem, how many section breaks there are, etc.—I read the blurbs last. But all of this comes after I’ve flipped through the book, holding the weight of the pages in my hands, gauging its feeling.
During my initial scan, one of the first things I noticed was the regimented, unified form of every poem, a blocked format that never changes. I was intrigued. After all, what does this form do for the collection that various other forms could not?
I quickly found my answer.
In the proem, “Instructions for Banishment,” we are introduced to multiple themes—war and death, music, a return to nature, the language that ropes around it all—but the most pervasive is the timelessness of it all. A timelessness that is reflected in the books form.
In the block style, the form does quite a lot of work. As said by Simone Muench’s review of the book, “Williams’ poems are composed of casket-like rectangular frames, their feral energy throbs against justified lines.” Similarly, Sean Thomas Dougherty says that “Williams offers us a book of little boxes, ‘each one contained eternities and histories.’”
But the box style does more than just frame or contain. It reveals.
The format mimics the galley style of newspapers and magazines, as if these poems are reporting events in a form that transcends time, much like the poems do.
What I found most fascinating, however, is that when these poems are placed one after another, they become a moebius—a loop with only one side and one boundary, that has the mathematical property of being unorientable. In this way, the poems, and the book, become cyclical creating one eternal feedback loop. Where one event ends, another begins, overlaps, becomes timeless.
Like in “American Quanta,” where it says, “before my name there were other names, & after my name, the same.” The ampersand is especially important, as it lends to the quick pacing and repetitiveness of a loop like a speedy reel in a movie theater.
But above all, these poems are about bearing witness to the cyclical nature of history—of the past, present and future. Like Muench said, these poems act as “witness to lives lost and interrogations of America’s violence as well as its willed amnesia of that brutality.”
Similarly, in “I Sometimes Forget This Isn’t About Us,” the speaker posits that “in no particular order the dead return to us, palms open, as if in apology or self-defense.” This is just one of many instances in which the cycle is juxtaposed against violence. In “Harm,” the speaker equates “harm: hurt: home: etc.” insinuating that home is pain, and that violence is learned at home
This cycle continues throughout in different ways, but it is always a cycle of death and rebirth. We begin with life then move on to religion-hate-war-death-fire to cleanse it all-then rinse and repeat.
This violence is also found in language, another thing we begin learning at home. In “Of Milk & Honey,” the speaker says that “the language of the town hasn’t quite caught up with the dark-skinned girl left half dead in the watershed,” and that they “bleed the body of its language.” In this way, language is connected to blood and skin. And yet not all hope is lost.
Sibley-Williams claims this language, this history as his own, as something he has to grapple in order to create a better world for his son, and for others. We must all claim this history and break the cycle or, well, you know the rest.