“Skin has a memory all its own,” John Sibley Williams asserts in the titular poem of his fourth collection, Skin Memory. In this rich and tangible book, Williams extends this deep-rooted memory not only to humans, but to all living things and to the very earth itself—skin as we know it not required. Memory is everywhere, this collection advises—in minds, in cities, in scars—and all memories are intrinsically linked.
Skin Memory is preoccupied with interconnectedness. The poems ask what marks we leave on our world and, in turn, what marks our surroundings leave on us. The memory of all things is wrapped up in the memories of all other things, and Williams displays this idea beautifully in stark, recurring images of a rural life: “Spent crops,” “the occasional carcass / dragged skyward by crows,” “the grassy light rising from beneath our / smoke and bluster.”
And Williams adamantly places humankind within this natural cycle of things, no matter how hard man fights to rise above the noise of the natural world. This humming, organic noise embodied in the steady rhythm of this collection. Williams exhibits a careful attention to sound, which makes up the root of each poem, which crackle like cold leaves on a path. “Imagine / the wind marching through us like an / unconquered city.” Coupled with the book’s narrative progression—which loosely follows the speaker through the years from child to parent—this through-line of incredible sound gives the book a cyclical and purposeful tone. But this isn’t to say the book is saccharine.
Williams approaches the natural world, in all of its tenacity, with the sort of hands-on reverence of a child. It is dark and it is cruel, but it is also our home to explore, to nurture, and to be nurtured by in return. Thus, Williams offers the reader a deeply personal sensory examination into the world he inhabits. “At least the world / still smells like the world,” he writes in “New Farmers’ Almanac,” “dirt-rich, deliberate / as much oak as animal.” He speculates the ways such a world can affect us. After all, this child has inherited an imperfect world. The pastoral landscape is dotted with images of violence. “it’s best to be a whet- / stone scraped smooth by the tides,” a father tells his son in “Advice Picked Up along the Way,” “for those wide white waves to break / briefly for your body, as if finally, son, / finally you’ve made an impact.”
But humankind is not only affected by the world around it. Williams is also deeply aware of the multitude of ways that humans scar the world beneath their feet. His plain speech and stark imagery conjure the sorrow of making a home of “the three-legged foal shot before mother could abandon it.” Even his recollections of childhood are seen through the sobering haze of reflection. “Let’s forget that time / we torched a haze of ants,” Williams writes in the aptly named “Killing Lesson.” These are the memories the earth holds in its skin.
These poems also do not leave out the marks that humans leave on each other. These marks may be tender— “And when we love / these nights with flesh and fingernails deep within”—or lethal— “The open door of a body when / the bullet exits cleanly”—as relationships between humans cannot be had without consequences.
But overall, Skin Memory defines humankind by its curiosity. It defines humankind by its propensity for naming, and thus, knowing, things: “The / knowing the names of. The being / named.” It defines humankind by its drive to make a home anywhere it lands: “We call it home.” Because this is a collection that is as much about cultural identity as it is all the lasting marks of the world and its inhabitants.
And though it seems that humankind may tend toward destruction, Williams ultimately reminds us that our propensity towards tenderness, or our impulse to learn it, fuels who we are. We are social, we live to interact with each other and the humming, throbbing wild that grows around us. “If only we / knew how to touch ourselves in that / way that drives winter from bone, at least how to touch each other.”
Ashley Wagner is a queer writer based in Baltimore. Her writing has appeared in JAKE, Foglifter, and Paperbark Mag, among others. Her debut chapbook is out now with Bottlecap Press. You can find her work at ashleywagnerpoetry.com.
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