John Sibley Williams is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize, 2019), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, 2019), Disinheritance and Controlled Hallucinations. A nineteen-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Philip Booth Award, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, The 46er Prize, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors' Prize, Confrontation Poetry Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: The Yale Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, Poet Lore, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, Columbia Poetry Review, Mid-American Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, and various anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon. 


Incendiary Device

John Sibley Williams


The thought of all this country burning

beyond bright: unearthly colors buried


deep in the earth, released, incite the oak

to awe. Is it true this ruin has been ours


the whole time? The generations spent

praying to the heavens for a match tip,


the demons exorcised, returning every

evening in the familiar form of a father’s


fist. The fire is a blanket pulled over

the field, up to its eyes, to hide the monsters


imagined in our closet. Or to expose them

for what they are. The animals have


always been terrified of us. They know

something of love we admit only to night.


It turns out I was born with a matchbook

in my hands. I don’t need to reach out or up.


O the thought of this country, all these

homes dancing sparks into a hot & holy


starless sky. There’s a reason we refuse

to leave, even now. Is it true, father,


when the world finally says its name

it will be in our voice?


John Sibley Williams




Here is a back door writhing at its hinges.

Here is a lawn that was once a meadow

through my neglect rediscovering its wildness.

Here is the well-lit darkness of a barn

without a roof, sun catching & holding

the brilliance of idle tools. & some hay

no one has made love on in decades.

Splinter & lodge, here is the shrapnel

I’ve left behind in leaving things incomplete.


I have stood on the threshold of a father’s pride

wearing too many years to admire the damage

& I’m not sure how to explain myself

to myself. That there’s a kind of sovereignty

in walking away before time does what it must?

That the deer have returned? That we are all

parents of at least one thing & that thing need

not be pretty? Here is the story of the bruise

that only became a bruise in hindsight. That hurt

that only hurts in present tense. Sanctuary. Here

is the distance between here & there. I still can’t

decide if there is a place. Or here. Or if I’m sorry.


   —for Jamaal May


John Sibley Williams



Outside sheets are pulling

back together into bodies.


The wind confuses sway

with dance, asks the dresses


there’s no one left to wear

for one more go before


the music ends. We wait

for the well out back to


illuminate its drowned coins,

all the gods overrun by prayers


to choose just this one to answer.

We beat the rain from hanging


undershirts & sing like nothing

the sky can do can rust the birds


from our mouths. We promise

our children the world


is forever, that this time

the wolves won’t show.


The fields are smoke

& through the smoke


figures materialize.

Deer that might be


mothers or sisters, gutshot,

looking for a slice of shadow


to die in. So many hanging trees

we confuse with men.


John Sibley Williams


That there were children here once

(calling these neon plains       home

carving the men they dreamed of

becoming into cedar) & men (dissolving

moon-like into myth while their bodies continued

panning the dried out riverbeds for lost        wildness)

& mothers (braiding light through their daughters’ hair)

& believe it or not animals (goddamn everywhere) clustered

together for warmth               taking winter deep in-

to their lungs & giving back plume               childbearing

hills      untapped oil reservoired beneath them       more stars

than a nation could excise in a century           a sky deprived

of its knives                             That there are now utility roads

bearing their names that snake along the pipeline    That we take

these roads      That     regardless        we keep taking these roads


The Sacred

John Sibley Williams


Someone is cramming notes into a wall

she knows no one            will ever read.


Someone is banging her head into a wall


                                    as prayer


which works for a time.

                                         All the sacred



openings of her body have been filled

so often by men without the necessary



borders don’t mean   keep out           anymore


             & there is no such thing as stay

                                                              safely inside.



Someone is plugging up the holes in the wall

with starlings her son strangled with his bare hands.


That there is no father is a blessing. Blessed,


what she once called my light is turning into

                                      such a fine boy.              


                         All around her,

waves of holy people wash in & out, wail & wail

then walk sixteen miles home for rice & fish.



Someone’s heart is quiet         as a prison yard.

Someone has more paper than prayers. Light


suffers through the cracks in the wall,

ricochets off into the city, then sand.


She pulls another bird from her box of dead birds.


The Promise

John Sibley Williams


The wind shifts the smoke

southward like winter birds

over neighboring towns I was raised

to hate for reasons even my father

can’t remember, over horses &

wilder dogs, empty silos, broken

fences, hills stripped of coal, long

stretches of placelessness; then farther

& farther to villages no longer starred

on maps & cities the movies

depict as beautiful violences,

neon-lit & sleepless; finally

skimming across open oceans

like hard-thrown stones to where

people look up to us as beacons

of light, praying so fiercely with all

their bodies for a chance to breathe

what I cannot clear from my lungs.

 ...But I love

rooms and cities I'll never return to, and once

 I loved a man for how he damaged me.

                  —Jennifer Chang

"Reading these poems, it’s evident that John Sibley Williams is a poet with complete control. The texture of his lines is rich and precise. The syntax demands attention and participation. As readers we get the pleasure of untangling each sentence, each line, into not just meaning, but an accumulation of surprising language and images. The speaker in these poems says, I’m not sure how to explain myself / to myself. These poems don’t falsely posture with knowledge, but rather, present us with a catalog of curiosities, a longing to understand all the things we are afraid to name."

—Hieu Minh Nguyen