Review: Skin Memory by John Sibley Williams

Skin Memory
John Sibley Williams
The Backwaters Prize In Poetry
University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska 2020

Review by Susan Kay Anderson

I could not help thinking of Tom Clark’s Empire of Skin (Black Sparrow Press, 1997), which is about the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest, when I saw and read Skin Memory, and especially the titular poem, which begins this book. I love this poem so much that I knew I would eat up anything else that followed it because I trusted immediately what it was saying and it made me want to listen to this book, all the way down to my eardrums.

Take the beginnings of each of the two stanzas of “Skin Memory”:

“Because you are what song breaks open your throat…”

and

“Because skin has a memory all its own…”

I think of drums and drumming because of the poetry paradox and the play between inside view and outer world. I also believe my instinct was not quite off to think of Tom Clark’s book when I read this one.  Titles aside, I can relate to the live animal Williams describes and observes; the animal of memory dipping below the surface and floating on it as well.  It is the landscape of memories in those landscapes becoming the live skin protecting us from the cold which is so valuable, so sought after and eventually shed or skinned away. 

As Clark does, John Sibley Williams writes about the grief expressed by people and by the land in the face of great loss and change. In the poem, “Natural History” Williams sees everything connected to everything else, much like skin covering different parts of the body, it is what holds everything together even though we may forget this.  Because we are so focused on survival and also on the intricacies of the activities of the world around us, we leave behind the skin, the familiar, which becomes an object in a series of objects:

 “…The way men here

cry when the sky they pray to refuses

to rain.  The rain and sometimes a

prayer for drought. The bowl of keys

in the foyer that open other people’s

doors.  The open door of a body when

the bullet exits cleanly.  The shrapnel…” (“Natural History)

Williams places us in the transcendent by the end of this poem and it is a delicate balance, a precarious and fleeting place after all the shedding of skin, of memories, and even memory itself, in contrast/as a response to the vast and overwhelming.

This is the place where we dwell in Skin Memory, in the hoovering spaces of witness and observer, and it is exciting to read of fields, woods, the ocean, and trees and volcanoes from this perspective, the perspective of the skin of the world at times and at others, the view from after this shedding.

I really loved reading “Hekla (Revised)” and the wisdom here, the painful yearning:

“…That nothing/ dies for long is a story we tell ourselves

to make the earth easier to sing, to

convince the earth we may have once

added something to it.”

In “Dear Nowhere,” set in Butte, Montana, Williams dares to name what cannot be named as “dear” in his title, which shows his love for the forgotten, the desolate, the “aluminum building” and “safe word” in these scenes of loneliness and rural ennui “…watching/ bales of hay unfasten in the distance…” This poem is constructed of a series of vignettes set in disparate locations; much like different parts of the body. Here, the skin is, perhaps, water, “…There is always a lake” and there are always places to perch, float, or fly either in vapors “…The burning/scent of gasoline…” in “…thin strips of flypaper” and “night clouds” of this poem as Williams explores each of these landscapes/memories as a disembodied traveler of sorts.  Although he says, “The disembodied/words of Whitman and cormorant returning…” as touchstones in a vignette set in Yellowstone, Williams’ disembodied journeys are marked by experiences gorgeous, boring, and real in the West, half-way to the West, North, Texas, East Coast, and Far North.

An alternative title for Skin Memory could be called Dear Nowhere because this poem reaches out to those nowhere places with gigantic, far-reaching hands, not really to gather them in and hold them close, but as touchstones and for good luck in preparation for further journeying.  Whether this journeying is real or into memories does not matter. What is important here is the naming of places and images of those places that create such questions as “…how much of the field is really ours” and to explore this in such an exquisite and rich way as Williams has done in Skin Memory


Susan Kay Anderson is the author of Mezzanine (Finishing Line Press, 2019). She holds a recent M.F.A. from Eastern Oregon University, and has degrees from the University of Colorado-Boulder, the University of Hawaii-Manoa, and the University of Oregon. She lives in Eugene and Sutherlin, Oregon.