Sometimes America Breaks Our Hearts: A Review by Alice B. Fogel

“Sometimes America breaks our hearts / & sometimes we’d kill for a chance // to do the breaking.” 

     In his new book, The Drowning House, the prolific John Sibley Williams’s poems reverberate with the expression of extremity. His poems betray an earnest, gentle heart mourning over the wrongs committed by America, and a fierce yearning for justice shaded by a dark vision. In his sensibility, the walls between realms of time and place, experience and bias, helplessness and the effort to hope, are as thin as dreamscapes. Writing in shifting forms that include lyric verses with spatial pauses and stumbles, prose poems with and without in-line slashes, structures with variable indentations, couplets, or justified line segments, he picks at the unhealed scabs of America’s crimes and denials. Everything he sees is an example: “...the rope / swinging in rural shade loses its tire & becomes // something else entirely” even as he acknowledges that the swing in his own privileged world is “not anything like a noose.” 

     The Drowning House is a collection of poems written by a white man undeterred by his own shame or sorrow, as he immerses himself in the suffering of others—and perhaps some from his own life, although that’s not always clear, since his rare first-person singular is often in the voice of a persona. Most of the poems constitute either a kind of portraiture in third person, or an observational “we.” I understand the universality, the largeness of the collective voice, this approach affords, and at the same time could not help but wonder if, in this project, it created an unintended distance from the very theme at the core of the collection. How does the writer cope with his sense of responsibility, his awareness of his privilege? How does he deal with the grief he feels over his ancestors’ sins, or with the unavoidable fact of his whiteness? Sometimes his straightforward “I” comes late in a poem, and even then it may be to “confess” that “I don’t think we’re ready / just yet to own our ghosts” [italics mine]. While it strikes as truth that, for example, “we” gave Native Americans “bottles” as if in compensation for use of their homeland, readers witnessing this poet’s confrontation with America’s past and ongoing cruelties might more profoundly feel the burdens of their own individual pain and hard-to-grapple-with guilt if the writer showed his own personal struggle with his. This is certainly true for me, in reading these poems while sharing his whiteness. But clearly this book is a crucial part of that struggle.

     Through his chosen lenses, then, he faces immigrants, refugees, African Americans, women. He takes on the bloody settling of the west, roads sundering native lands, rape, 9/11, violent fathers, violent weather, lynching, economic disparity. He writes of cages, coffins, and other prisons; ghosts not only of the murdered or the past but of willfully suppressed collective memory; nooses; internment camps; what to tell the children. There seems nowhere to turn that isn’t haunted, that isn’t overwhelming the “rough and raging gods,” or that isn’t—or shouldn’t be—drowning us in despair. 

     You might fear that a book so intent on laying bare the blatant or subtle injustices of a nation arguably too in thrall with itself might be didactic, dreadful not in meaningful subject but in form, a political poetry heavier on the politics than the poetry. But that is not the case here. Instead, these are poems rooted in a commitment to facing the reality of a nation’s grief and guilt over current and historical wrongs, grown through imagery and impression, and finally allowed to move us more to emotion and thought than argument or ideology. At times, the vivid stories and other reminders are hard to bear. Still, the poems, brimming with the concrete realities they lay out as evidence, are somehow driven as much by the shapes and sense of language and form exploring them as by their actual “abouts.” 

     One of the compelling reasons to keep turning the page—to yet another kind of damage never yet sufficiently given apology—is the way Sibley Williams finds images, metaphors, and analogies both close to his subjects and expanding outward from them. A ship’s figurehead of a mermaid, plunged in dangerous waters, brings us to how “the women we’ve made to withstand us / withstand us.” Deer stalked by wolves “thank” them for keeping them from more unnatural predators who want “to keep the wild in its place.” Laundry in the wind suggests the strange fruit that hangs from trees. 

     Sibley Williams employs a range of creative approaches, occasionally—and interestingly—including poems that pair very diverse references: Prometheus with Trayvon Martin, Rosa Parks with Banksy, even Cesar Chavez with Robert Frost and Malala Yousafzai with Nikola Tesla, who once said, “If your hate could be turned into electricity, it would light up the whole world.” In one pairing, the social effects of Fox News’s Roger Ailes are compared to the damage done by Sisyphus’s boulder “pouring back down that steep hill. // It’s the village below that flattens.” In another, descriptions taken from Edward Hopper’s paintings provide the same feeling of emptiness and outrage we know from the tragedy of Emmett Till’s death: 

       The surface is a lighthouse 

     overlooking wreck after wreck. No ships 

     here anymore. Nothing left to cradle & swing

     safely into harbor. All sorts of things swing.  

     This intense and beautiful book seems to be the writer’s “self-portrait” with those tortured, lied to, shunned, betrayed, incarcerated, enslaved, detained, and murdered. While, in this book, he may not fully or directly examine his own inner experience, these poems stand as the embodiment of the attempt to identify with those unlike him—or us—and I believe that choice is intentional. He uses his informed imagination to stand in others’ shoes, and he sometimes, momentarily, puts himself in a third point of view, that of someone observing the same people and situations he is, but devoid of his bitter empathy: “That we are not them helps / restore our faith in ourselves.” In this identification with the hunted, the haunted, and the other-than-himself, he flatly states, 

                                                     ...I refuse 

                    to love equally 

the bullet and its target. That we are all targets; some, 

thankfully, lord, not today.” 

Not incidentally, Sibley Williams regularly uses this kind of unpreceded poetic subjunctive. For example: “That there is nothing apart from the push / some still call prayer.... // That this aped anthem just keeps singing / itself hungry.” Or: “That there are now utility roads / bearing their names that snake along the pipeline.... That    regardless          we keep taking these roads.” This and other mood and tonal qualities of his writing put me in mind of some of the popular poets deeply rooted in the 1970s whom he may have descended from—Mark Strand, W. S. Merwin, James Galvin, Robert Bly. What is implied in the omission, that kind of conditional, incomplete syntax? A wistfulness, or worse—a cry. It is horrible that... we might think here, without quite realizing we’re thinking it except on a gut-level, or it is impossible to accept that.... The word “that” could easily be removed, leaving us with a direct statement: “This aped anthem just keeps singing / itself hungry.” It’s worth contemplating the effect of the displacement, and whether it adds another emotional level or ameliorates it. 

In fact, there is a great deal to think about in the voices, experiences, and pleas of these poems. The latter part of the collection comprises a series of perhaps more loosely lyrical poems, still firmly rooted in human suffering. “Balm” becomes as much acceptance or surrender as the result of the kind of sharing that helps each other survive. There is a desire to feel “gratitude for everything I haven’t had to steal,” even as “there is no metaphor for loving the world so hard // it falls freely on your sword.” Would it be the honorable thing, he seems to be wondering, to resign or give ourselves up in acknowledgment of all the ways—both grand and intimate—there are to hurt each other and destroy ourselves? Or can there be atonement? What does it require, or what do we “redact” from our lives, Sibley Williams asks, “to make all this anguish seem an art”?  In this book, we are all drowning in a sinking house. But John Sibley Williams wants to know if there can be forgiveness. Is there a bridge visible, there, up ahead? “May we say we see it through the smoke.” 

Alice B. Fogel served as the New Hampshire poet laureate from 2104 through 2019. Her latest poetry collection is Nothing But, a series of poems considering Abstract Expressionist art and its effect on our consciousness. Two of her five previous books are A Doubtful House and Interval: Poems Based on Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which won the Nicholas Schaffner Award for Music in Literature and the 2016 NH Literary Award in Poetry. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, she is also the author of Strange Terrain, on how to appreciate poetry even if you don’t “get” it. She works one-on-one with students with learning differences at Landmark College in Putney, VT.