Critical Appraisals: Disinheritance: Poems, by John Sibley Williams



While we try with all our might to escape the inevitable, death remains an inescapable facet of our lives. It is how we deal with grief and loss that makes us grow. To put it crudely, grieving “builds character.” To put in the terminology of Joseph Schumpeter, death is an example of “creative destruction.” From the painful absence and life lost come strong emotions, grief, and memory. Mankind has creates vast architectural systems to rationalize these feelings, whether they are an earthly monument or the heavenly afterlife. Death is such a painful, wrenching, and primordial experience that Americans have built up an edifice of language tranquilizing and euphemizing the experience.

George Carlin takes us to task for degrading language, especially language associated with death and dying:

Older sounds a little better than old doesn’t it? Sounds like it might even last a little longer. Bullshit, I’m getting old! And it’s okay, because thanks to our fear of death in this country, I won’t have to die … I’ll pass away. Or I’ll expire like a magazine subscription. If it happens in the hospital, they’ll call it a terminal episode. The insurance company will refer to it as negative patient-care outcome. And if it’s the result of malpractice, they’ll say it was a therapeutic misadventure. I’m telling you, some of this language makes me want to vomit. Well, maybe not vomit. Makes me want to engage in an involuntary personal protein spill.

(Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics[1990])

Disinheritance by John Sibley Williams is a new collection of poems seeking to heal irreparable loss. These poems were inspired by a twofold loss, the illness and death of his mother and his wife’s miscarriage. Both events occurred within a few months of each other. As I’ve written elsewhere, poets have the terrible privilege of being the exposed nerve of humanity. With language polished and refined they express what we can’t. The devastating loss of mother and child would put others into a mute numbed shock. Williams turned these two losses into a stellar collection of poetry. These poems reveal an individual seeking answers in the written word and attempting to explain what can’t be explained. Son and child both orphaned by fatal misadventure.

Here are some questions: What is art? What is the purpose of art? Is it to heal? To give the reader a message? To make a pretty literary object? To assuage the author’s ego? To get the voices on to the page and out of your head?

Disinheritance contains passages of intense beauty. It is a self-portrait of a poet in grief, emotions rubbed raw by personal tragedy. Whether or not this collection is financially successful is completely irrelevant. Williams has talent, credentials, and critical accolades, but all those things are dross. As Ezra Pound declared in Canto LXXXI:

What thou lovest well remains,
                                                   the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

In the poem “Procession,” Williams hews images spare and loaded with meaning:

A city’s worth
of wooden christs.
Handcrafted sorrow.
Just for today
heavy as devotion.
Streets awash with controlled
(The secret is animal blood,
paintbrushes, and guilt.)

The portrait of intimate faith receives epigrammatic intrusions:

The flower’s remedy the same
as the flower’s poison.

In a range of styles, lengths, and perspectives, Disinheritance explores the twilight realm of deep personal grief. The second poem (“Truce”) ends with the confession, “And I miss the hard geometries of coffins.” The language reflects a hard-earned emotion, rubbed to a mirror-shine, yet the language itself sounds effortless, a cathartic balm on a still healing wound.

“Syncopation” confronts language itself:

Language breaks down
like this: you

must in some way suggest the I.
The world must break

inward. My heart
must be there, in yours,

or nothing.
I have nothing but this need.

Yours is the doe’s heart I must eat
to remember why I’m here.

Williams melds the simple (but not simplistic) line of William Carlos Williams with the pagan imagery of Galway Kinnell’s bear poems. As the world breaks inward, imploding in shards and fragments, he must devour the doe’s heart to survive. Even as the world collapses around us, we still must participate in individual destructive acts. Consumption is destruction. Yet Williams would know, as a native of Portland, Oregon, the eternal rhythm of the seasons. The rot and decay of Fall leads inexorably towards the nesting and torpor of Winter. But out of Winter’s ice and cold come the first inklings of green, the season of rebirth and rejuvenation.

Several poems are ghost stories (“A Dead Boy Speaks to His Parents,” “A Dead Boy Fishes with His Dead Grandfather,” “A Dead Boy Fashions the Grand Canyon from His Body” and others). Other poems are religious ceremonies (“Eulogy,” “Procession,” “Penance”). And yet other poems reflect on the nature of language and naming (“Things Start at Their Names,” “Calligraphy,” “A Dead Boy Learns Metaphor,” “Say Bang,” “To Name Butterfly”). Still others are gothic and primordial (“Grief is a Primitive Art,” “I Go to the Ruined Place,” “House on Fire,” “Lullaby for the Damned”).

In the ceremonies of grief others comfort the bereaved with words. “We are sorry for your loss.” The statement, so trite and so predictable, doesn’t mean it lacks sincerity. Beyond the verbal formula, both parties understand how inadequate words can be. Death, like marriages and births, represent momentous events. They are milestones in one’s life. Disinheritance seeks to find the words for the times when words most fail us. Whether or not this collection is a “modern classic” is an endeavor best left to the publicist and the bookseller. I won’t append that specific description in this case, mainly because my job involves contemplation, analysis, and discernment. A more important assessment is Disinheritance can stand with the likes of “Death, be not proud” by John Donne and “Kaddish” by Allen Ginsberg in conversation. In place of a verdict, I would like to see these works reflect and refract off each other.

Death is the ultimate destination for all of us. But perhaps death, to steal Winston Churchill’s line, isn’t the beginning of the end, but maybe the end of the beginning?

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