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The Drowning House by John Sibley Williams

Source: the poet
Paperback, 102 pgs.
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The Drowning House by John Sibley Williams digs deep into masculinity’s myths and confronts its history of violence and of atrocities committed against people of different backgrounds. It is a look at America’s past that is coming into the light and begs us to reckon with it, acknowledge it, and move forward with forgiveness and compassion. For those in the current time who have not committed heinous acts, we still must face what we’ve inherited by the privilege of whiteness and maleness and seek the best path forward for the future or there may be little of it left for anyone.

In the “My American Ghost” section’s opening poem, “Pantomime,” the music of the wind is reviving the sheets into bodies as “We wait/for the well out back to//illuminate its drowned coins,/all the gods overrun by prayers//” (pg. 5) In this section, there are poems that try to tackle the issue of racism in this country with poems about Emmett Till//Edward Hopper, Prometheus//Trayvon Martin, Rosa Parks//Banksy, internment, and more. This section is a hard read as I think about whether we need another “white” man telling us about tragedy or civil rights, but these poems want us to question that and turn that questioning gaze unto ourselves as the privileged class of Americans who benefit the most from the systems of oppression. Hopper’s oil paintings of lone characters in dim settings mirror the shadows of Till’s murder and how “Skin can be its own//broken republic.” (pg. 7)

The Dead Just Need to Be Seen. Not Forgiven. (pg. 8)

That old man in the photo our family never talks about,
known best for tracking runaway slaves; tonight

we drag him from the basement up these loose
wood stairs & set out a plate of salted cabbage & rabbit--

so long since I've asked why the empty chair at our table.
With all the warmth a body has to give, we give up on

measuring the darkness between men. Dust & dusk enter
& are wiped from the room. The names we call each other

linger luminous & savage. Still. That tree I used to hang
tires from holds tight its dead centuries. The light

swinging from its branches we call rope-like,
which implies there's no longer rope. Tonight, we'll wash

the burnt out stars from his hair, all the crumbs from his beard.
The misfired bullet of his voice we let burn as it must.

It is clear that America’s past is part of who we are. In “Internment,” the narrator says, “This country goes/weak at the knees at the thought of you, how you nourish/the earth//” Further in this section, an abusive father appears in a story told to the narrator’s own children where the ending is changed to make it more palatable for kids’ ears. But we need to hear the full story, not just a rosy colored version, as the narrator reminds us in “My American Ghost,” “light strikes a coin/differently after a train/flattens its face:” … “our mouths, nestfuls of promises,/we shall open them almost/fully: swallow & speak for what/we’ve swallowed: a whole/new language of witness./” (pg. 30)

The Drowning House by John Sibley Williams is an America that fails to look its past in the eye, accept what has come before, and right that ship. “Is it true this ruin has been ours//the whole time?” (“Incendiary Device,” pg. 35) or can we be the narrator: “It turns out I was born with a matchbook/in my hands.” and “There’s a reason we refuse/to leave, even now.” (“Incendiary Device,” pg. 35). While exploring American darkness, Williams is reaching for the light with a hopeful hand for the next generation.

RATING: Cinquain

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About the Poet:

John Sibley Williams is the author of seven poetry collections, including Scale Model of a Country at Dawn (Cider Press Review Poetry Award), THE DROWNING WORKS (Elixir Press Poetry Award), As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press), and Summon (JuxtaProse Chapbook Prize). A twenty-six-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and founder of the Caesura Poetry Workshop series. Previous publishing credits include Best American Poetry, Yale Review, Verse Daily, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, and TriQuarterly.

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